Diner: Friendly Landmark

Newport's Green Derby offers "just good food"

When I moved to Cincinnati over 20 years ago, I was warned about Newport. "You know, there were gamblers over there — and other ... things." Uplifted eyebrows, a slight sniff and knowing nods punctuated the comments. I took those remarks as an invitation to venture across the river and found charming dives, diners and good dining tucked in neighborhoods steeped with great architecture. I didn't find those other things, but I wasn't looking.

The Green Derby was one of the dark and cavernous taverns that I encountered within the first few years. I remember joyfully hunkering down for my first authentic ham steak with red-eye gravy since leaving Virginia. I still wasn't accustomed to being addressed as "Hon" by wait staff both older and younger than I. That greeting, I learned, was often accompanied a good dose of crisp cholesterol, something I craved more than learning the intricacies of ordering a three-way.

In recent years, Newport has proven that visions can grow quickly across the river. But it's still refreshing to drive past the shiny new world on the Ohio shoreline, down York Street to a landmark that's been spruced up a few times over the last five decades, but basically has remained much the same since opening in 1947.

We settled into the non-smoking section (a rarity anywhere in Kentucky) after snagging a parking spot in one of the two adjacent parking lots. The cheerful walls were festooned with a mural of Van Gogh's St. Remy evening café scene and dotted with Christmas decorations.

Starters included some fairly standard bar food such as fried mozzarella and fried mushrooms (both are $2.95). We sampled the Shrimp Cocktail ($3.50), five medium shrimp circling a double Old Fashioned glass filled with chopped lettuce and capped with mild cocktail sauce, a perfectly pleasant option that felt festively healthy. The Potato Skins ($3.50) were sizeable cuts of potatoes topped with very orange cheese, green onion tops and chopped bacon. The potatoes were sitting in a pool of oil, but separate appetizer plates helped eliminate some of the excess.

Homemade soups change daily. We sampled cups ($1.25) of the Mock Turtle, thick and earthy with a rich aroma and the Bean soup, which was flavorful, salty and swirled with tomatoes and celery among the white beans.

The Derby Salad ($1.50) was a variation on the classic hot slaw. The sweet and sour hot bacon dressing didn't fight for attention with the pliant chopped iceberg lettuce and was an agreeable change.

I couldn't resist ordering the "famous" Halibut Sandwich ($7.95). Renowned as a favorite of even some from Delhi during Lent, it was still a desired option on Saturday night. Also available as a dinner option, you can choose to have it baked or fried ($13.95). I was impressed with the large strips of golden-brown fish that showed no visible oiliness. The fish was moist and flaky within the crisp battered crust and I would have been perfectly content to eat it without the brown rye bread.

The golden-brown Southern Fried Chicken ($9.50) was the real thing — skillet fried, not from a deep fryer. I would have preferred a bit more zest in the batter, yet I enjoyed the moist results of the fading art of frying. A thick slice of Grilled Ham Steak ($8.50) was paired with applesauce and my special request for a side of red-eye gravy. I'd recommend the mashed potatoes with ladlefuls of the red-eye gravy for a good comfort food option. The Baked Grouper ($7.95) was doused with too much paprika, but the simple presentation of the large filet was pleasing.

Entrées were accompanied by a basket of yeast rolls and choices among potatoes, vegetables or salads.

It was obvious that The Green Derby has a large cadre of regulars every night of the week. The service is friendly (I was "Hon" on both visits) and quick. How many places can you get a table of four served two or three courses at very reasonable rates for good home-style food in about an hour with a chance to chat with friends and neighbors?

The pies were fresh and tempting. The Apple Pie with Cinnamon Sauce ($1.95) proved that sometimes the basics are best. The pie was better with most of the syrupy and overwhelming sauce scraped off. The big winner was the Coconut Cream Pie ($1.95). From the toasted coconut atop the light and golden meringue to the silky coconut custard to the tender and flaky pastry, the cool subtle sweetness of the pie was a delightful end to the meal.

Tucked into The Green Derby's logo are three words: "Just Good Food." Exactly right.

Go: Ninth & York, Newport, Ky.

Call: 859-431-8740

Hours: Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m.- 9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

Prices: Reasonable

Payment: MasterCard, Visa, Discover

Red Meat Alternatives: Fish and chicken

Other: Carryout available

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