I don’t remember how I first got wind of Claudia Sanders Dinner House. Probably reading through the scores of travel brochures I pick up each and every time I stop at a welcome center. Last year I decided it was time to drop in and have a meal at what originally was named The Colonel’s Lady, in Shelbyville, Kentucky. It’s about 30 miles east of Frankfort, not far off Interstate 64. And Mom, cousin Phyllis and I would be passing by there at about early-bird dinnertime.
I’d told them both I had a special place to eat picked out, but I wanted to surprise them. They at first were satisfied with an estimated time of arrival and that it was “just past” Frankfort. Eventually they became bored with other conversation and started asking what kind of food this place served. I said good, from what I’d heard — and mentioned it was somewhat historic. That just led to more questions. I finally told them it was Colonel Sanders’ wife’s restaurant. That’s how I understood its history at that point. There’s actually a little more to it, we’d learn once we got there. Phyllis asked me to repeat what I’d said at least twice. Mom just looked at me askance.
Just after we exited the interstate, Phyllis’ cell phone rang. It was her husband, Waymond Manis, wondering how far along we were on our trip to Indianapolis.She told him we were stopping to eat and he would never guess where. And then it went something like this:
Her: “We’re going to Colonel Sanders’ wife’s restaurant.”
Her: “Colonel Sanders’ wife’s.”
Him: “There’s no such place. He had the restaurant ... well they had it together. In Corbin.”
Her: “Not that one. We’re going to his wife’s restaurant.”
Him: “I don’t think there’s any such place.”
Her: “Well, I hate to tell you old boy, but we’ve just pulled in the parking lot and I’m a lookin’ at it.”
The Claudia Sanders Dinner House (3202 Shelbyville Rd., Shelbyville, Kentucky, 40065) looks like a huge antebellum mansion. We were greeted by a cheerful hostess and served by a patient, attentive waitress who was delighted it was our first visit. The facility includes multiple dining areas and banquet and event space as well.
Chicken is on the menu, along with a wide variety of other traditional American foods, some with a Kentucky twist. I ordered their take on one of my all-time favorite things: A Kentucky Hot Brown, described on the menu as “layers of baked Kentucky country ham and sliced roasted turkey breast on toast points, smothered with our golden brown gravy, and topped with shredded cheddar cheese, tomatoes and bacon.” I also ordered a side of their “breaded stewed tomatoes.” It’s a signature item, the recipe often requested. To us, it sounded like tomato pudding, or tomato dumplings. And Mom has for the past few years been seeking a recipe for tomato pudding like my paternal grandmother used to make when Mom and Dad were newlyweds. Mom, as usual, ordered Chicken strips and a baked potato. Phyllis tried their entree-sized “Loaded Mashed Idaho Potato” (with chicken, bacon bits, cheddar cheese and sour cream).
We enjoyed it all. It was a nice, relaxing meal (we were between lunch and dinner crowds, but the latter began to arrive as we were finishing our meal. The breaded stewed tomatoes were good, but Mom said they weren’t like Momaw’s. So if anyone out there has a good recipe for “tomato pudding” (apparently using fresh-stewed tomatoes in season, crumbled biscuits, sugar and butter), especially if its a recipe perhaps local to Southwest Virginia and circa 1950s, please let me know.
There are tributes to the Sanders, both the colonel and the lady. But not so much that they dominate the decor. After we ordered, I wandered the public spaces reading plaques and enjoying paintings and prints. Here’s an abbreviated history of the restaurant, according its website:
Born in Indiana in 1890, Harlan Sanders began to serve food at his service station in Corbin in 1930. Five years later Gov. Ruby Laffoon made Sanders a Kentucky Colonel in recognition for his contribution to the state’s cuisine. In 1955 Sander incorporated Kentucky Fried Chicken. After Interstate 75 opened, draining away traffic, Sanders sold his Corbin restaurant in 1956 and began traveling to sign new KFC franchisees. In 1959 the Sanders moved to Blackwood Hall in Shelbyville. In 1964 the Kentucky Fried Chicken chain, with more than 600 restaurants, was sold. The Colonel’s Lady opened in 1968.
Before we left, we texted Waymond a picture of Phyllis at Colonel Sanders’ wife’s restaurant.
J.H. Osborne covers Sullivan County government for the Times News. Email him at [email protected]