Story by Matt Wickstrom, Kentucky.com
Photos by Matt Goins
LEXINGTON, Ky. — What’s it like watching years of hard work literally go up in flames? Just ask Justin Thompson, who had to watch just that when Belle’s Cocktail House, the rustic downtown Lexington bar with a rooftop view he co-owns, went up in flames on the morning of Aug, 24, 2018.
After seeing photos and videos on social media showing monstrous flames rising from the roof, Thompson prepared for the worst as he headed down to assess the damage. Fortunately for Thompson, the Lexington Fire Department was able to extinguish the flames in about a minute, helping to preserve the membrane of Belle’s roof and limit damage to its interior. Thompson says he experienced a whirlwind of emotions upon arriving, but after going inside quickly began to change his focus to recovery.
“It was mixed emotions because you’re weary, but we had to look things over and begin making a game plan because we didn’t want to be out of business long, both for the sake of our patrons and our employees,” said Thompson. “There wasn’t much of a pity party to be had about it.”
While a cause for the fire was not determined, Thompson says that the fire department ruled out arson and electrical issues being the cause. However, an investigation did uncover that the flames originated from a rooftop trash can, potentially from a cigarette butt or chemical reaction.
Belle’s was quick to recover, reopening less than a month later on Sept. 21 with a celebration jokingly named “Belle’s is Lit” featuring specials on Fireball shots, smoked peach Old Fashioneds and four-alarm spicy margaritas.
However, as the name suggests Belle’s specializes in cocktails, with concoctions such as “Call Me The Breeze” named after renown Lexington madam Belle Brezing, seafarer themed “Argghhh Matey” and the “It’s Always Sunny” paying homage to debauchery-filled sitcom starring Danny DeVito.
Thompson says the bar’s signature drink is the “Naked in the Garden,” named after a song penned by co-owner Larry Redmon of the same name. The drink features cucumber-infused Wheatley Vodka, strawberry kiwi shrub, fresh lemon juice, lemon and cucumber slices, full strawberries, club soda and orchid, resulting in a crisp and refreshing drink. Additionally, Belle’s has a wide selection of beers, wines and bourbons, nearly 200 strong, plus newly added bourbon slushies on the rooftop. Slinging drinks at the bar are manager Jason Curtsinger and assistant manager Natalie White.
“If someone comes in who wants a vodka and tonic or a shot of Fireball than that’s not an issue as well,” said Thompson. “We just want people to be able to comfortably enjoy a drink and be able to unwind.”
Thompson partnered with his brother Seth, Bob Eidson and Larry Redmon of Redmon’s and Bluegrass Tavern notoriety to open Belle’s in November 2013 on Market Street. The watering hole is named after Belle Brezing, a madam who opened her first of three Lexington brothels in 1879, attracting clientele from across the country.
Thompson said the inspiration for Belle’s came from noticing a lack of bars in the area catering to anyone but the college-aged crowd. Located beneath the shadows of the Chase Bank Building, the bar features a chic, traditional look with distinct personalities on each of its two floors, the first overflowing with Victorian-era accents as a nod to Brezing , with chandeliers hanging from tin-pressed ceilings and a bar with backlit onyx and rustic portrait of Brezing. The second floor, dubbed the “Hunt Club,” features taxidermy and exposed brick to foster “an environment that Ernest Hemingway may retreat to,” according to Thompson.
However, helping Belle’s to stand out among a crowded bar scene is it’s rooftop getaway, which provides patrons a view of the city’s sprawling downtown. While so much of Belle’s identity is tied to its rooftop it wasn’t even a part of the business’s original plans. According to Thompson the idea came about after he struck out on acquiring parking lot space adjacent to the bar to build a deck.
“We felt that since Belle Brezing was the ultimate entertainer that doing a rooftop bar would be something she would approve of,” said Thompson.
If you go: Belle’s Cocktail House
What: A rustic bar with rooftop views of downtown Lexington
Where: 156 Market St.
Hours: 5 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. Thursday through Saturday
Derby Cocktail: Strawberry Ginger Mint Julep (Maker’s 46, ginger liqueur, strawberry simple syrup, strawberry halves, mint juleps, lemon slice and mint sprig
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