Claudia Sanders Dinner House continues the colonelâ€™s legacy of â€˜true Kentucky foodâ€™
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton ate there; so did pop composer Marvin Hamlisch. Singer Pat Boone and Lee Majors, televisionâ€™s â€œSix Million Dollar Man,â€ have stopped in, and so have legendary boxer Muhammad Ali and U.S. Senator
But of all the famous people who have eaten at Claudia Sanders Dinner House (3202 Shelbyville Road, in Shelbyville), owners Tommy and Cherry Settle have most admired the man who made the dining landmark possible â€“ KFC founder, Col. Harland Sanders.
â€œCherry had been his national sales hostess; she went everywhere to teach employees about proper appearance and cleanliness,â€ Tommy said. â€œWe were thinking of opening a KFC store in Virginia, but didnâ€™t have the money. We came to the colonel in 1972 and asked if he could help us out. He offered to let us take over this operation, because he was traveling so much. He lent us the money; he financed it and everything. It was a real opportunity for us, and we never could have done it
The colonel started his world-famous chicken chain during the 1950s in Corbin, where he and his wife, Claudia, ran a restaurant and motel. She regularly visited the townâ€™s railroad station in order to ship finger-lickinâ€™-good ingredients to distant franchises. In 1959, the couple moved to Shelbyville, a more convenient location for taking advantage of the Louisville areaâ€™s transportation hub.
The couple purchased a spacious white house, known as Blackwood Hall, on four acres beside U.S. 60, a major thoroughfare between Louisville and Lexington. The site soon bustled with employees working in the restaurant chainâ€™s headquarters and kitchen staff preparing ingredients for recipes.
Claudia Sanders Dinner House opened in 1968 as The Colonelâ€™s Lady. The convivial colonel often parked the cars of his guests and greeted as many diners as his business schedule permitted.
The couple sold the property to the Settles seven years before the colonelâ€™s death in 1980; Claudia died in 1996. The sale ended the restaurantâ€™s affiliation with KFC, whose headquarters had relocated to Louisville.
A catastrophic fire on the day after Motherâ€™s Day in 1999 destroyed the original restaurant building. Following 17 months of reconstruction, the restaurant almost doubled in size. Today, the 24,000-square-foot facility seats more than 800 people and features several dining rooms, a banquet room, an upstairs lounge and a shady balcony.
The lunch and dinner menus of Kentucky comfort food continue to tempt diners with the colonelâ€™s favorite items â€“ country ham, steak and, of course, fried chicken.
â€œOver the years, weâ€™ve added lots of beef selections, including filet mignon and New York strip steak â€“ all Black tAngus choice. We also have catfish, trout and salmon, and as many as 18 vegetables in our Sunday buffet,â€ Tommy said. â€œThe colonel and I worked on a Hot Brown. We went all over, eating different versions of it, until we were ready to make one the way we wanted it to be.â€
Every dish, from bean soup (another Tommy-and-the-colonel collaborative effort) to blackberry cobbler, is made on the premises. The restaurant received a Best of the South award in the 2002 issue of Southern Living Favorites, and the recipe for Breaded Tomatoes was published in an issue of Taste of Home magazine.
â€œWe know whatâ€™s going into our product, because we buy the best quality â€“ nothing cheap,â€ Tommy said. â€œThe colonel told us, â€˜You canâ€™t make a silk purse out of a sowâ€™s ear. You could trick â€˜em once, but you couldnâ€™t trick â€˜em twice.â€™ If you donâ€™t have good food, they wonâ€™t come back a second time. Serve good-quality food all the time, pay attention to it, and theyâ€™ll keep coming back for true Kentucky food.â€
Claudia Sanders Dinner House, 3202 Shelbyville Road (U.S. 60) in Shelbyville, opens at 11 a.m. and closes at 9 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday; open Monday for private parties. For more information, visit www.claudiasanders.com or phone 502.633.5600.