When we think of important hubs for artists and creative culture, big cities like New York or Los Angeles come to mind. But certain small towns are also focal points for innovative thinkers, and in 2013 Paducah was recognized as such with designation as a UNESCO Creative City.

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When you dine in Paducah or drop into a tap room for a tasty drink, you’ll discover that the town’s innovation and artistry extend to its restaurants, breweries, and other eateries. Throughout the city, you’ll not only find a diverse collection of barbecue joints, but also contemporary cafes, such as Highwater Fresh Bar, serving fresh, locally sourced food. From Historic Downtown to Midtown and beyond, you’ll encounter craft breweries, fine Italian cuisine, and inventive creations like the rolled ice cream at Craving the Curls.

Now is the perfect time to experience all the local flavor that Paducah has to offer. This year, the Bluegrass State is celebrating “The Year of Kentucky Food,” and you’ll find culinary celebrations from restaurants to festivals to parks throughout the state. Whether you’re a casual traveler or a foodie, you’ll find plenty to please your palate in Paducah.

Classics

No small town can claim to be part of “the South” without a solid barbeque tradition. In Paducah there are several local barbecue joints, and each offers the classics plus unique innovations, like pulled pork on toast at Harned’s Drive-In and the hash brown casserole at Backwoods BBQ. When you’re in town, try the pit-style pork at Starnes Barbeque, which often tops the lists of “best BBQ in Kentucky.” In addition to its barbecue, Starnes is known for its vinegar-based sauce, which has a little kick thanks to a touch of black pepper, cayenne, and other spices.

Barbeque is so beloved in Paducah that for three days in September the aroma of smoking meat fills the air as dozens of teams cook up more than 80,000 pounds of chicken and pork at the annual Barbecue on the River Tournament & Pig Out. Every team sponsors a favorite charity, and the event involves copious amount of eating for serious foodies. Don’t miss it!
While barbecue is a big deal in Paducah, catfish is also popular, especially at the family-owned Strickland’s Seafood Restaurant, located about 30 miles from Kentucky and Barkley lakes. As you’re waiting for your catfish to arrive at the table, try the fried alligator appetizer.

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No small town can claim to be part of “the South” without a solid barbeque tradition. Paducah

If you’re going to celebrate “The Year of Kentucky Food,” you should definitely try some of western Kentucky’s classics, including country ham, Silver Queen white sweetcorn, and Kentucky Wonder green beans, which are beans cooked with bacon, olive oil, and garlic. This regional meal representative of the Kentucky’s western lakes and rivers region is on the menu at Kentucky Dam Village. You’ll find takes on classic local ingredients throughout Paducah!

For an iconic Paducah culinary experience head to Kirchhoff’s Bakery, one of many locally-owned restaurants in Historic Downtown that have been popular for ages. For five generations Kirchhoff’s has been delighting its loyal customers with classic bread recipes and modern innovations such as cranberry walnut and sun-dried tomato and basil breads.

Walk two minutes from Kirchoff’s and you’ll reach Cynthia’s California Tuscan Ristorante, which not only serves tasty Italian cuisine but also crafts its own pastas and breads.

To enjoy a sweet treat and a bit of Paducah history, head to Red’s Donut Shop or the Dippin’ Dots Treatery flagship on West Park Drive. The flash-frozen, beaded ice cream treat was invented in Paducah, and the city is the home of the Dippin’ Dots world headquarters.

New on the Scene

While Paducah has food traditions that span generations, the artistic vibe that permeates town culture has inspired a fresh, innovative culinary scene. This is especially evident at Freight House farm-to-table restaurant and the reimagined historic Coke Plant, which has been transformed into a hub for food, the arts and entrepreneurship.

The Freight House proudly honors area farmers and producers by sourcing the bulk of its ingredients within a day’s drive of the restaurant. Plus, it rotates the menu based on what’s in season. While it’s hard to pin down what’s being served at any given time, there are a couple of Kentucky classics you should try to order, such as the spicy beer cheese and the Kentucky silver carp, which is served with local mushrooms and warm bacon onion jam. And, to top off the experience, diners are surrounded by a collection of artwork produced by local and national artists.

Built in 1939, Paducah’s Coca-Cola plant was once a showcase facility for the company, but it eventually closed, and the historic building sat vacant for about seven years. New owners restored this essential element of the town’s past and breathed new life into it by turning it into a vibrant community hub. In addition to a Mellow Mushroom pizza restaurant, The Coke Plant now houses a variety of other commercial and artistic ventures, including a yoga studio, Ice Cream Factory, string music studio, makerspace, Pipers Tea & Coffee and Dry Ground Brewing Company.

Another exciting new addition to Paducah’s food scene is Branch Out Foods, which focuses on plant-based and gluten-free foods. It’s perfect if you follow a vegan or vegetarian diet, or if you have food allergies. Also relatively new is the Italian Grill on Broadway, where you can enjoy a relaxed setting and homemade breads, pastas and desserts.

In Paducah you can also take advantage of new fine-dining options, such as Grill 211, which gets rave reviews for its fresh beef and seafood (try the firecracker shrimp).

Libations

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Try some local craft brew at Paducah Beer Werks. Paducah

As the first craft brewery in Paducah, Dry Ground Brewing Company has been a lynchpin in the town’s culinary scene. Priding themselves on their superb craftsmanship, the Dry Ground brewers offer 10 in-house brews and 25 other craft favorites on tap. Another great spot to try local craft brew is Paducah Beer Werks, which produces crowd-pleasing small batches such as Vanilla Bean Porter, a cherry chocolate stout, Irvin Cobb’s Rooster Rye, and Blueberry Ale. Stop in an enjoy a flight and a delectable casual meal in the dining room, a local favorite.

All types of artisanal drinks have joined Paducah’s creative scene, including legal moonshines and, of course, bourbon. If you’re an aficionado of American whisky, the Silent Brigade Distillery should be on your itinerary. Silent Brigade hand-crafts bourbon the old fashioned way in specially designed copper pot stills and offers an innovative line of spirits, including the tantalizingly named Apple Pie and Peach and Apple Moonshine.

Honoring the long tradition of Kentucky moonshine makers, The Moonshine Company has stormed onto the scene of craft beverages. In the four years since opening its doors, the distiller has won nine medals for its moonshine and two consumer choice awards. In addition to a fine selection of more traditional flavors, The Moonshine Company also offers some charming options, such as Loaded Lemonade, the buttery pecan flavor of Blind Squirrel, and the Quilter’s Special, which is made with real yellow and white peaches.

Paducah' award-winning Purple Toad Winery is the ideal place to finish off a day of sightseeing and adventure. The largest and most medaled of Kentucky’s wineries, Purple Toad has a reputation of pleasing all types of folks, including people who don’t normally drink. Just a handful of its innovative flavors include Chocolate Strawberry, Cranberry, Lauren's Blackberry, and Paducah Peach.

Create Your Culinary Tour

Throughout “The Year of Kentucky Food” and beyond, you’ll find no shortage of locations and special occasions to explore local cuisine, from bourbons to beers, and new and traditional takes on iconic dishes. If you’re planning a foodie tour, be sure to include a stop in Paducah, where the food and drink scene is yet another prized work of art.

Preview a full list of Paducah restaurants and the Paducah Dining Guide for more inspiration. Or, visit the Paducah.travel Calendar of Events for upcoming culinary events, festivals, bourbon dinners, and tastings!

Written by Lisa Collard for RootsRated Media in partnership with Paducah Convention & Visitors Bureau.