– Mint Juleps Kitchen brings hometown hospitality and upscale dining to a comfortable corner in historic Madison
– Written by Andrea Gable
– Photographed by Jesse Walker –
Last September, Madison’s historic buggy factory, just off Main Street, came alive once more as Mint Juleps Kitchen opened its doors and invited the community to enjoy an “upscale casual” dining experience.
Repurposed as a cozy and welcoming dining room, bar, and lounge area, owners Susan and Doug Olive partnered with Sean Draeger to offer “Good Food with Southern Hospitality.”
“We had this wonderful location and we wanted to bring something totally different to the dining scene,” says Susan. “Madison has amazing restaurants, so we wanted to find a niche between fine dining and fast food that could bring in more variety.”
The owners aimed for comfort and quality, mixing modern industrial with rustic chic in the building’s lofty and historic setting.
“We purposefully kept white linens off the table and created comfy lounge areas to keep it cozy,” says Susan. “There are no TVs in the dining room and no fryers in the kitchen. We wanted it to be ‘upscale casual’ and give customers a whole kind of experience through both the food and atmosphere.”
Along the walls is the whimsical art of local artist, Susie George. Her pieces are explosions of glitter and glam that walk the line between fun and fine art. Susan says she fell in love with George’s work the moment she walked into her studio. George had already fallen in love with the restaurant before it even opened. She says she watched the family working long after dark to get the restaurant ready to open. As it progressed, she noticed its walls remained empty, so she wanted to change that.
“I wanted to match the feeling of the restaurant through the art,” says George. “It’s such a warm and happy environment, and my art is fun, not serious, so I felt the connection and wanted to add to the experience.”
“We wanted a name that would fit well in such a classically-Southern town with its Antebellum homes and historic downtown,” says Susan. She was inspired by a simple silver tea spoon that had been her grandmother’s. “We started playing with the idea of Mint Juleps, thinking it could shine a Southern light on the place and we could focus on bourbons, which would give us our signature drink,” says Susan.
The bar is stocked with 30 different true Kentucky bourbons, making it the largest bourbon selection in town. Local craft beer is also available by the bottle. The restaurant has hosted bourbon tastings and wine dinners, pairing a five-course meal with five different wine selections.
“We are slowly making it up as we go along,” smiles Doug Olive from behind the bar. “It’s important for us to listen to our customers to see what they want.”
Doug says they understand the restaurant is playing to a tough crowd, so they work hard to adapt to customer requests.
“The lake area has a really diverse group of consumers, so when you cater to someone like that who has been all over the world and they come here and say, ‘This is the perfect duck,’ it makes us really happy and we feel like we’re doing something right,” says Doug.
Executive Chef Sean Draeger earned his stripes in well-known Oregon-based restaurants, before opening his own boutique joint, Pizza Bella, in Atlanta. After settling in Madison four years ago, Mint Juleps Kitchen, became the restaurant he was meant to have.
“This is definitely more in the vain of what I was trained to do,” says Draeger. “I spend a lot of time crafting the menu and like to change it out seasonally, based on fresh ingredients that come available.”
He works alongside sous chef, Venus Moon, to create fresh, quality offerings that keep customers coming back over and over. The restaurant serves daily house-made soups, fresh salads, wild-caught seafood, and free-range beef, chicken, pork, and lamb.
“We cook from our heart here, which is what I think brings people back,” he says. “With food, if you’re not feeling it in your heart, the food suffers, which is why I like to change things often.”
It’s also a warm sense of the familiar, according to George, that brings people like her back. To attract an even wider base, the restaurant has begun holding different events to introduce new patrons to the restaurant including wine dinners, bourbon tastings, and most recently, “Mint Juleps Hideaway.” Once a month, the restaurant makes room for a dance floor and invites live musicians or DJs in to entertain. “It brings in such a varied crowd and has been such a hit here,” says Susan who is planning to hold a special Hideaway evening one Saturday a month.
It was also important for Susan to use the restaurant as a tool to become further involved in the community. The restaurant is ideal for hosting meetings and work sessions. One of her favorite experiences, she says, has been hosting the One Morgan Writers Workshop, designed to bring in local authors to share their experiences with Morgan County Middle School and the surrounding community.
In fact, Susan has set aside the first “Mint Julep Award” for Luke McFarland, the teacher who spearheaded the workshop series. “He has just connected the students and this community together through his love of literature,” she says of McFarland. “He is just a pioneer, and deserving of recognition which is why it was important for us to honor him.”
Susan says she plans for Mint Juleps Kitchen to continue to be a part of the community for many more years to come.
Mint Juleps Kitchen is located at 231 Hancock street in Madison and is open for lunch and dinner, from 11 a.m. – 9 p.m., except on Tuesdays. To find out more, visit www.mintjuleps.com