Nick Ryan’s remembers Levas’ at Mad Men Night

Nick Ryan’s, 157 Jefferson Street, will celebrate Mad Men Night on Wednesday. Martinis, Manhattans and old-fashioned cocktails will be specially priced and served in the style of the popular old Levas’ Restaurant, a stylish downtown restaurant in the ’60s and ’70s. (Read former Herald-Leader columnist Don Edwards’ story on Levas’ below.) Nick Ryan’s staff will be dressed a la Don and Betty Draper from the hit AMC television drama set in the 1960s. Call (859) 233-7900 or go to Nickryans.com.

Memories of Levas’ Restaurant

Angel Levas in 1977 (from Herald-Leader archives)

Angel Levas in 1977 (from Herald-Leader archives)

Don Edwards, a retired Herald-Leader columnist, wrote this column about Levas’ Restaurant after it closed in 2004.

Every time I go past the northwest corner of Limestone and Vine Street and see a couple of old bay windows hanging over Vine from the second story, I think about Levas’ Restaurant, once a landmark there in the heart of downtown.
I remember being a reporter in the 1960s. If you couldn’t find the mayor or county judge or some other official behind a desk, Levas’ Restaurant was the second place you went looking.It was incredibly crowded, elbow to elbow at the bar, with everyone wanting a table and talking all at once. On many tables was the restaurant’s trademark: an individual-size martini pitcher. And in the heat and smoke, the place smelled deliciously of filet mignon, prime rib and a few ethnic dishes, such as moussaka, for the family was proud of its Greek heritage.
I especially recall walking past the front door, which opened on Limestone, one cold winter night. Out of the restaurant came a town idol, a handsome University of Kentucky basketball star named Charles “Cotton” Nash. He was wearing an expensive-looking camel’s hair overcoat, and on his arm was a beautiful young blonde. Both were laughing. How wonderful, I thought, to be king of the city.
That was Levas’. You never knew who you’d see there, but it was usually somebody, with a capital “S.”
“Mike Levas, my father, bought it from two old brothers who were going back to Greece. We started there in 1920 when it was the corner of Lime and Water streets, long before Vine was reconfigured,” said Evangelos “Angel” Levas, 73. “It was called Coney Island Lunch, a hot dog stand. Nearly all men. Ladies would have lunch at the Canary Cottage. My job was to slice the buns two at a time. Then old Klaren’s Bakery started selling them pre-sliced. In those days, if my father had a problem, like a rowdy or no-pay customer, he went outside and waved his apron. That was the signal for Callahan, the cop at Main and Lime, and Callahan would come running.
“The place was open 24 hours seven days a week. One Sunday in 1941 I went in to work. The cook didn’t show, the dishwasher didn’t show, the server didn’t show. I was 10 years old. I phoned my father. ‘Nobody’s here,’ I said. ‘I don’t know what to do.’ He said: ‘Close up.’ I said: ‘Where’s the key?’
“Well, the place hadn’t been closed in 21 years so nobody knew where the key had gone. I got a locksmith from Pinkston’s to make a new key. After that, we were closed every Sunday.”
‘The good days’
In the 1950s, Lexington was growing. Downtown, with its upscale department stores, hotels and several theaters, was like a miniature city. After college and the Air Force, where he served as an officer in Germany, Angel Levas and his brother, John Levas, had an idea: a new, white-tablecloth restaurant that would combine the food, drink and sophistication they had seen in other cities.
“We remodeled the old property in 1956 and opened within a month,” Levas recalled. “We went from hot dogs to filet mignon in 30 days.”
It was the new game in town, and 119 South Limestone was an instant hit.
“The people,” Angel Levas said. “That’s what I miss the most.” The brothers’ parents were still alive and active in the business. A menu dish was named after their mother, Marika Levas. “We called it Chicken Marika, with a meat-and-raisin stuffing, Greek style.”
The suburbs were looming, but there were no malls. Downtown was the commercial center of town, and it was booming.
“Those were the good days,” Levas says. “In the holiday season, the streets were so crowded that you almost couldn’t walk.” His brother later left the business and moved to Hawaii.
Calling it quits
Levas’ Restaurant had one last incarnation, and again it gave the town something it hadn’t seen before. In 1978, it moved west up the block, remodeled the old Walgreen building, and changed its address to 141 West Vine. It had 22,000 square feet on two floors and was posh: a piano, huge dining rooms, private-party rooms, 400 pieces of fine art on the walls and not a single horse painting.
“What happened,” Levas said, “was that downtown Lexington moved to Victorian Square and old Festival Marketplace.” And the ‘burbs were in full ascension, sprawling out with more and more asphalt. “Suddenly we had more competition than ever before. Per capita, I think Lexington has more restaurants than anywhere.
“Clientele we’d been used to seeing four or five times a month? Now we saw them once a month. We stopped lunch. Where we had filled four dining rooms, now we were lucky to do two. Finally, in 1988, I called it quits. I just couldn’t do it justice any more. It’s a young person’s game. I didn’t go bankrupt. I just quit and began enjoying life, doing things like taking trips to Europe.”
Today he stays busy selling microsurgery instruments for eye surgery.
Part of old downtown Lexington died with Levas’ Restaurant.
Levas still thinks of the old days and maybe dreams of some new ones.
“Limestone was once called Mulberry Street,” he said. “Don’t you think that’d be a great name for a restaurant? Mulberry?”