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Friday, February 3, 2023

The Famous Kitchen

Like his father, George, Ben Skiadas can work the front room. He is the perfect restaurateur for the kind of place that is the Famous Bistro on Second Street in Owensboro, Ky. The 28-year-old Ben, who now manages the bistro opened by his father in 1993, becomes especially animated when he talks about the Mediterranean restaurant with a “worldly” flare.

“It’s a labor of love,” Ben says of his enthusiasm for both working in, and talking about, the bistro. “If you have a question about a dish, and if you can’t find somebody to answer those questions, then we’re missing our mark. That is what gets me excited. There’s always going to be a new dish — a new something — you will find in Famous Bistro. I think that’s why people keep coming back.”

People have been returning since Famous Bistro opened, and the downtown development projects along the Ohio River and on several Owensboro streets have enhanced the opportunity to attract new visitors. Families celebrating birthdays sometimes book most of the 13 tables inside the long, open space. (Diners also can enjoy alfresco dining on the sidewalk out front.) In our family, it is always the first choice to celebrate special days.

“Constant evolution, that has been a part of the restaurant for as long as it’s been open,” Ben says. “You have to reinvent yourself in anything you do. For us it’s been important because of the different turns downtown has taken.” He adds, “Now, we’re really thrilled. Over the last 20 years we have been here, and now we’re in this renaissance with the riverfront, and we are as eager as can be to be involved with it.”

Ben graduated from Owensboro High School and the University of Evansville, where he studied both theater performance and design. He headed to California after college, working in restaurants and trying to determine what he wanted to do with his future. He returned to Owensboro in 2009 with a desire to learn about running a small restaurant — one that had long been known for its intimacy and original cooking.

“When I came back, I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do, and the restaurant business was definitely a calling,” Ben says. “My dad said, ‘You want a job? I’ve got a job for you, and it’s bussing tables. You’ve got to work your way back into it. There are no free rides here.’ The last year I’ve been running it, but I have literally held every position in the restaurant.”

George still is the owner and general manager, and he comes to the restaurant most days of the week. Ben, along with the staff, has kept the evolution going, making changes to move the restaurant forward during downtown Owensboro’s transformation. This summer, Famous Bistro will enclose and utilize its back alley space as a getaway of sorts — complete with tables and an area for musicians to perform — covered with a “ceiling” of outdoor lights.

The variety of food is outstanding. A group can order the Athena pizza (with spinach, feta, and Romano cheese), a delightful concoction of peanut butter soup (with an actual dollop of peanut butter), grilled swordfish with Kalamata olive salad over citrus risotto, or a Reuben sandwich with broccoli slaw. More than 40 beers and 50 wine selections have emerged to accompany the fabulous menu offerings.

A considerable advancement is the addition of chef Kyle Kellogg, formerly of the Evansville Country Club and Madeleine’s. “I worked with him at Madeleine’s. I was a bartender there, but I paid close attention to everything going on in the kitchen. I got to look at a potential employee before he ever imagined I would become an employer,” Ben says. “It’s a dream come true to have him in the restaurant, where he can teach our staff. Our kitchen has always been a learning kitchen, a place where you can come in and experiment.”

The open environment of the kitchen played a large role in influencing Kellogg to join Famous Bistro, and he plans to bring a French influence to the cooking. “There are very few ‘no’s’ coming out of our restaurant,” Ben says. “If somebody wants a dish that we made 10 years ago, we will do that for them as long as we know how.”

It is exploration that has allowed Famous Bistro to create extraordinary culinary adventures from traditional dishes. The restaurant’s version of Greek mousaka falls into this category. The traditional dish of eggplant layered with ground beef, smothered in bechamel sauce, and topped with Swiss cheese prior to baking is transformed by the bistro’s adaptation that replaces the beef with ground sausage and a clever mix of spices.

“It was one of the things Dad altered in the ’90s to better suit the Owensboro market,” Ben says. “He thought, ‘We’re in a meat-and-potatoes place. Let’s do that and give them something Greek.’”

He added potatoes, ground sausage, and some additional spices, and took a peasant dish and turned it into something special,” Ben adds. “It is a great example of what the restaurant is.”

The Famous Bistro

Location: 102 W. Second St., Owensboro, Ky. • Phone: 270-686-8202 • Dining Hours: Open 11 a.m. -8 p.m. Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday  • Website: www.famousbistro.com  • Adult Beverages: Yes • Prices: Lunch $6-$12; Dinner $15-$27 • Reservations: Yes • Payment: Accepts MasterCard, Visa, Amex, and Discover.

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