For the past 30 years, locals have flocked to the tiny white structure just across from the “Singing Bridge,” making Rick’s White Light Cajun Diner one of Frankfort’s most celebrated eateries.
Some may wonder why. It has limited seating – only two tables and a scattering of stools at the counter. Filled to capacity, it seats a mere 16 customers.
The décor may politely be described as modest. License plates from states as far-flung as Alaska are interspersed with political posters – some of which would make their subjects blush.
There are souvenirs from Harley riders who have made Rick’s a sort of club house, and a photograph of the 60’s pop musical group The Dixie Cups posing with Arthel Neville, television journalist and niece of New Orleans R&B legend Aaron Neville.
And even when it’s not the holiday season or Mardi Gras, strings of Christmas lights dangle from the ceiling and beads hang from the bathroom door.
Guy Fieri of The Food Network calls it “the ultimate American dive.”
That’s high praise from Fieri, and music to the ears of patrons such as musician Dave Mason; the late playwright and actor Sam Shepard; Eagles front man Don Henley; those Harley riders; and a plethora of devoted locals, who couldn’t care less about the lack of seating and décor.
They come for one reason – the inspired Cajun and Southern comfort cuisine of its namesake owner Rick Paul.
They come for his po’ boys, which many say are the best you can get north of Louisiana, with the oyster and shrimp po’ boys being especially popular, according to Rick.
They come for the chicken and sausage jambalaya, the softshell crab, crawfish pie and muffulettas, which Rick immodestly boasts “are much better than those you get at New Orleans’ Central Grocery Store.”
And if you come for breakfast (the diner is open for breakfast and lunch only), you can also get a plate of beignets that will make you think you’ve been transported to NOLA’s legendary Café du Monde.
While he also serves up a mean Memphis-style barbecue platter and southern fried catfish, it’s easy to see that Rick has a Cajun sensibility. So just how did a Kentucky boy become so enamored of the cuisine of the bayou?
“When I was at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, some of my classmates were from Baton Rouge and they taught me all about the cuisine of the region,” says Rick.
Post-CIA he began an itinerant culinary journey with stops at Lexington’s Idle Hour Country Club and The Fig Tree, a popular restaurant; Calumet and Lane’s End Thoroughbred Farms; the Lt. Governor’s Mansion; the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia and The Pelican on North Carolina’s Outer Banks Island of Ocracoke.
It was his eponymous Frankfort restaurant however, that earned him his local fan base, and his two appearances on The Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” that gave him a national audience.
“After my appearance with Guy (Fieri), we were overwhelmed with people pouring in from all over the country,” says Rick.
They waited hours for one of those tables to open up, or a seat at the counter to be vacated before tucking into the “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives Sampler” (two oysters, one-half slice crawfish pie, pork BBQ, French bread and choice of one side.)
Speaking of that French bread, Rick says that by his estimate he has baked more than 200,000 loaves of it for those much- lauded po’ boys.
He’s also proud of the fact that he uses real butter in all his dishes, and that he gets the best seafood available to serve his land-locked customers.
“We get crawfish and alligator from Louisiana and oysters, scallops and softshell crabs from Chesapeake Bay,” he says.
With a demeanor that is a combination of Kenny Rogers and a less rotund Santa Claus, Rick likes to refer to himself as a cook and an entertainer. His cooking skills come at a modest price, and the entertainment portion of the show comes free of charge.
In fact, since his daughter Hannah came to join him at the restaurant 10 years ago, she has taken on more of the kitchen challenges, leaving Rick with more time to debate politics or sports, offer sage advice, or simply jaw with his customers.
When in Frankfort, if you want to see the culinary light, pay a visit to Rick’s White Light Cajun Diner.