Bill Hughes seeks to make everyone who comes to his Owensboro, Ky., restaurant located at 420 Frederica St. feel at home. I saw that first hand when an older gentleman pulled up in a Lexus on a frigid late afternoon just after New Year’s Day. Bill, who was carrying a small child, motioned for the gentleman to come in. It was a few minutes before 5 p.m., and Bill’s Restaurant hadn’t officially opened for dinner. That didn’t matter. There are no formalities.
Hughes sent another worker back to the kitchen for a small bag of corn muffins the gentleman had evidently special ordered for pickup. “Do you want some more? We can make them right up,” Bill asked. “It’s OK, we’ve only got three people,” the man responded.
That gentleman was Charles Medley, the patriarch of Charles Medley Distillery, a long-time icon of the Owensboro economy back when the town was one of the top bourbon makers in Kentucky. Hughes said a night later that he doesn’t make up “doggy bags” for customers to drop by and pick up, but for Medley it was a special treat. “I used to live across the street from him,” Hughes explained as he sat at a table with our group when the night’s creative cooking was done. “They invited me to be in the Littlewood Athletic Club, to watch Kentucky basketball games. It was because I could cook.”
On a visit to Bill’s that Friday, there was a familiar face sitting at a table next to us with some friends. It was Medley, who was back at Bill’s for dinner. Medley later ran into some other folks he knew at a nearby table as he was leaving. After a brief introduction to some visitors from Atlanta, Medley asked for a bottle of bourbon from behind the bar to show the Southern guests. “You could call this our new kid on the block,” Medley said as he showed the table the bottle.
“How many other restaurants can you go to where the guy you buy your vegetables from and the guy who makes the bourbon you sell come in for a meal?” Hughes asked.
If you visited once a week, you might see that kind of scene repeated with different customers at other tables in Bill’s. It is a relaxed place where 60 or so people can dine on a somewhat sophisticated mix of dishes gleaned from Hughes’ near-lifelong fascination with fine cooking. “I started cooking when I was about 5,” said Hughes, who grew up in Leitchfield, Ky., about 50 miles east of Owensboro.
Hughes graduated from Centre College, Danville, Ky., in 1985 and wanted to become a chef. He moved to Charleston, S.C., and graduated from Johnson & Wales University with a degree in culinary arts. Hughes honed his skills over the next couple of years and was part owner of a restaurant in beautiful Charleston called the Primrose House. He came to Owensboro in 1989 to take over as general manager and chef at the Campbell Club, a long-time private dinner club, located on Frederica Street.
Also, after 10 years at the Campbell Club, Hughes went to work as a financial planner with Edward Jones. After 15 years there, he decided to go back to his passion — fine cooking — not long after the stock market upheaval in 2008 that became the Great Recession. Hughes scouted locations in Owensboro before settling on a building right next to the old Goldie’s Theater, which was decades before a movie house and is now used by Theatre Workshop of Owensboro.
After renovating the space that had been various incarnations of a diner called Barneys, Hughes opened Bill’s Restaurant on Dec. 13, 2011. It was more than a major moment for the guy who would bring his own version of Low Country cuisine to Owensboro. “Everything we do is to order,” Hughes said. “That very first day when the tickets started spitting out of that machine, it’s like you can’t undo. It was a little rough at first, getting in shape, keeping up with everything. The night before we opened, I was frantically trying to figure out what I wanted to have on the menu. But, starting our third year, I think we’re pretty secure.”
The restaurant, which has an awning that announces Eat@Bill’s, has increased its regional reach in its two full years being open. “We do a lot of business out of Evansville,” he says. “We probably have eight to 10 tables a week of people from Evansville.”
The sheer experience of eating at Bill’s has a lot to do with the restaurant catching on and thriving. On the night I, my wife Laura, and another couple visited, we were delighted to be offered what was called Bill’s Special. Our server described it as “Bill starts bringing different dishes out for you to try.” How much you try is up to the individual. Early in our meal, Bill came out of the kitchen and asked with a characteristic smile, “How hungry are you guys?”
We pondered the question as we started our evening with a bottle of 2011 Joel Gott Cabernet Sauvignon. Most of the tables were occupied on this Friday night. The restaurant had just finished a series of full nights during the holiday season. They had sold out on New Year’s Eve, but that didn’t stop another 30 people or so from trying to get in. On our night out, it was a friendly setting sprinkled with conversations and a mix of soft dinner music from a less-hectic time.
The appetizer was Monkfish Pakora, an Indian dish of deep fried monkfish in a curry batter served with a house-made cilantro chutney. A plate decoration of Sriracha added heat. Other entrees on that night’s special menu included the Halibut Tangine, which was simmered in a North African saffron tomato sauce with beautiful Cerignola olives, lemon zest, and carrots served over couscous. My personal favorite was the Sweet Hot Twice Cooked Pork Belly. The pork was organic, slow braised in soy and then deep fried and tossed with a sweet-hot Chinese black bean sauce. As Hughes proudly pointed out, the Japanese turnips came from White House farms in Daviess County, Ky. For a bit of sweet to finish the evening, we were brought candied pineapple topped with mascarpone cheese, chopped walnuts, and soaked with cardamom honey syrup.
Seafood flown to the UPS Worldport in Louisville highlighted that Friday’s special menu. It was delivered by Nancy Richardson from Jasper, Ind., who makes pickups at Bluefin Seafoods in Louisville. But the special menu at Bill’s rotates nightly.
“It goes by what’s available, what I feel like cooking, the temperature outside,” Hughes said. “Tonight was a lot of spicy stuff, because it’s really cold outside.”
Location: 420 Frederica St., Owensboro, Ky.
Dining and Bar Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tues.-Fri. Dinner, 5 p.m. to closing Tues.-Sat.
Adult Beverages: Yes
Payment: All major credit cards accepted.