|By TIM THORNBERRY
SMITHFIELD, Ky. — To say that Our Best Restaurant is a little off the beaten path is a bit of an understatement, but for those folks who have made the journey, it is one they won’t forget.
The quaint, country eatery resides in the small community of Smithfield nestled in Henry County, but isn’t far from the major metropolitan centers of the state and has become one of the most popular dining stops in the entire region.
Kenneth Way, a lifelong resident of the area, started Our Best in 1990 with the idea that people would drive out of their way to get great food at a great price with the right flavor of friendship, hospitality and good service mixed in, and he was right.
Way and his wife Kay wanted to get into the restaurant business to showcase the flour and cornmeal once produced by the Smithfield Milling Company.
Way bought the mill to preserve its history and would eventually build the business around it.
Our Best got a modest start in a small building that seated only 36, but patrons would patiently wait in their cars for a table.
“I remember someone told my father that he was the luckiest man he knew, starting a restaurant way out in the middle of nowhere and getting all the customers he did,” said Way’s son Kenny who joined the business in 1992.
“Daddy just looked at him and said ‘that’s right and the harder you work the luckier you get.’”
That philosophy has lived on as Kenny, his son Aric and Kay have continued what their father, grandfather and husband started.
Commodities from the mill were stored in an old warehouse across the street and it was there the restaurant moved in 1995, after some restoration work, to accommodate larger crowds.
“All of the building is original except for a couple of things,” said Kenny. “We wanted to keep it that way.”
The exterior of the building is inviting, complete with a covered porch and wooden benches and rocking chairs. Once inside, you’re taken back in time with the old wooden beams in the ceiling and the original wooden floor. The walls are adorned with photos of many famous people, all of whom have connections to Kenny in some way, old time items, including a safe that was once used in the local bank and there’s even a barber’s chair.
“All those things on the walls and around the restaurant were given to us by our customers,” said Kenny. “It makes them feel like they are a part of the place. It makes them feel good and I want them to feel at home.”
Perhaps the most unique thing about the décor are the thousands, no it’s more like hundreds of thousands of business cards that cover almost every available space on the walls.
The tradition got started quite by accident when a card was tacked up by the telephone so it wouldn’t get lost. Someone else saw it and wanted the same for their card and so a tradition was born.
“I have no idea how many cards are on the walls, but they are from everywhere. Some I can’t even read,” said Kenny.
Once seated, customers are usually greeted by one of the many high schools kids working part-time at Our Best.
Kenny takes a personal interest in each one becoming like a second father to most of them.
“I like them to see me work, so they will be challenged,” he said. “I get a lot of compliments on the kids and I’m proud of them. I want all our employees to be successful, that’s what life’s all about.”
The menus are unique, using the same design as the original flour sacks sported when the mill was operational. But the thing that keeps customers coming back lies inside the menu; all that great home cooked food.
Kay is responsible for all the recipes used in preparing every dish from the fried cornbread and bean soup to the pork chops and fried chicken and the desserts. Everyone visiting the restaurant should leave room for the famous pies and cobblers made fresh daily.
“We all take turns doing everything around here from baking the pies to cleaning the kitchen,” said Kenny.
“You have to be able to do everything because if the piemaker is sick, you still have to make the pies. We have to wear all the hats.”
It’s no wonder with all the good food and atmosphere that many customers make Our Best a regular destination and many times during “rush hours” some have to wait for a table. Instead of sitting in their cars, these days a giftshop next to the old mill serves as a way to pass the time waiting for a table.
“The gift shop was Kay’s idea. She wanted something to compliment the restaurant,” said Kenny.
The shop contains many crafts and unique items along with a year-round Christmas room.
Two and a half years ago Our Best expanded by way of a catering business. Aric handles most of those duties and takes the goodies from inside to many festivals, church and business picnics and other events all over the area.
“I work a lot with the catering end of the business, but I do whatever I’m needed to do,” said Aric. “I started working here when I was 15 bussing tables and washing dishes. There’s nothing else I’d rather do.
“I’ve grown up around many of our customers. We’ll serve close to 500 people on most Sundays and I’d say at least half of them just wave how many is in their parties. I don’t have to ask them their names, I know them already.”
It is that familiarity that makes Our Best what it has become; a home away from home. The Ways aren’t just in the food business, they are just as much in the business of making customers feel like family, in a family atmosphere, whether they’re coming for the first time or the hundred and first time.
Kenny walks from table to table greeting nearly everyone that comes through the door. Sometimes he sits and chats for a while and sometimes he pats a shoulder and moves on, but either way he finds the time to make his customers feel like old friends.
“There’s more to this business than putting money in the cash register,” he said. “This is my passion and I treat it like a child and when the lights go out and the parking lot is empty, I go home knowing the good Lord has blessed me. That’s what it’s all about. I’m just here to take care of it for a while. I learned the business end from working in Louisville in some of its finest hotels, but the people end, I learned from Daddy.”
Kenneth Way passed on in 1998 but his memory lives on in every corner of the restaurant and while his photo hangs by the door, his spirit stretches far beyond the boundaries of Smithfield, Ky.
Our Best serves lunch and dinner from 11 a.m. until 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday and 11 a.m. until 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Breakfast is served on Saturday and Sunday from 8 a.m. until 11 a.m.
The restaurant is closed on July 4th, Thanksgiving and three weeks during the Christmas season. For more information visit their website at OurBestRestaurant.com or call 502-845-7682.
This farm news was published in the May 2006 issue of Marketplace.