Lucie Slone Meyers
Four days before Valentine’s Day, Lucie Slone Meyers held court at a table in her nearly opened restaurant, The Red Light Kitchen & Lounge (780 N. Limestone).
Between directing staffers on where to place tables, décor and bottles behind the bar, the grande dame of the Lexington restaurant scene talked shop with some of her peers: Debbie Long, owner of Dudley’s on Short; and Larry Dean, general manager at Chatham’s, among them. Each wanted to know if Slone Meyers, their 66-year-old friend, was ready to open the sixth, and likely final, restaurant of her storied, four-decade career.
Long stood while Meyers stayed seated, and the pair discussed the usual: other restaurants opening, the challenges of finding good help, whether a Valentine’s Day opening for Red Light was a good idea.
“Oh, they’ve all been wandering in,” says Slone Meyers, watching Long head out the door to her own restaurant. “We all do that to each other: check in and see what everybody’s doing.”
Slone Meyer’s phone rings and she takes the call, while employees wait to ask her more questions. The call ends, and without hesitation, she gives instructions, confident she knows what she wants done.
“Oh, opening on Valentine’s: I’ve lost my mind, haven’t I?” she says, her coarse laugh sliding into a cough. “I’ve always opened on a holiday; Halloween once. But Valentine’s: red heart, Red Light. It works.”
Suddenly, the discussion shifts.
“I have lung cancer. You know that, right?” She says it as casually as you might mention the unseasonably warm weather. Last year, one tumor was discovered in her left lung, and another behind her sternum. She’s endured rounds of radiation and chemotherapy to battle it and responded well. Recently, however, doctors have grown concerned about another tumor on her pancreas.
Adding with her raspy but genuine laugh, “I lost all my hair, too,” she says, patting at the short salt and pepper remains as if double checking to ensure it’s growing back. She’ll have a full body scan in March to determine the next course of action. “Chemo, damn, that’s worn me out of course.”
Last year, local chef Jonathan Lundy told Business Lexington about Slone Meyers: “I’ve seen her do it all and work that kitchen alone. … She’s as good as anybody.” But lacking energy to enter the most strenuous part of the battle, cooking on the hotline, Slone Meyers is letting chef Brad McQueen command the kitchen.
“It’s hard for me to stay on his left and not cook, because I don’t always think he does things the way I’d do it,” Meyer laughs. “But he gets a kick out of me, says I’m old school. He’s doing a good job.”
Starting at the end
After 31 years as owner and chef at a la Lucie, Slone Meyers shut down the legendary eatery in 2016 after her landlord raised her rent higher than she could afford. But long before it closed, she began planning to open Red Light. She knew well the role of creator-owner-operator: First at Rosebud, then a la Lucie, followed by Roy & Nadine’s, Pacific Pearl and Julep Cup.
Red Light is essentially an amalgam of all of them, Slone Meyers says. Favorite dishes from each, some re-created, some reformatted, all designed to fit the tastes of an increasingly casual restaurant customer.
“A la Lucie was too French for too long; that’s past now,” she says. “I’m even doing a burger here, which I’ve never done in any of my restaurants.”
She misses the slower, measured pace of a la Lucie, and its deliberately sequenced order of appetizer, salad, entrée and dessert, called “coursing.” Her veteran service team there knew how to control the pace so as to not overwhelm the kitchen with orders or make guests wait long between bites. But on the Valentine’s night opening of Red Light, Slone Meyers discovered her servers weren’t skilled in matching their pace of ordering to the kitchen’s rate of output.
“I only wanted to take reservations for about 60 people … but we did about 150,” she says. “It was nuts, a rude awakening to lose control like that. But we’ve only been open three weeks, and they’re learning. I like all of them, so I know it’ll work out.”
Slone Meyers acknowledges that restaurant No. 6 is harder than all the rest but not because of her battle with cancer. She jokes that when she opened a la Lucie, she didn’t really know what she was doing — yet it didn’t matter because customers loved what she served them.
In 2017, however, she says customers are better educated about food and drink, and therefore they demand restaurants meet and exceed what’s become a voracious desire for variety.
“With everything they see on TV and the internet, they expect sauces with five to six ingredients,” she says. “It is more complicated now, but I’ll say it makes our food better.”
Drinks, too, she adds, pointing toward the dozens of bottles packed onto Red Light’s bar.
“Who had that many kinds of bourbon in one restaurant 32 years ago?” she says. “That’s complicated, too, and it’s really expensive to get in one place.”
Before Red Light opened, Anne Allen, Slone Meyers’ sister, asked whether Slone Meyers whether she could keep up with the demands of yet another restaurant — at age 66 and while fighting lung cancer. The long hours on her feet, the heat of the kitchen and the grueling pace of the work would tire the hardiest souls, she pointed out. But Allen said her sister said she’d do it anyway because it was all she knew and what she wanted to do.
“It’s obvious that this is what keeps her alive, keeps her so connected and engaged,” Allen says. “It’s widely believed that when people are facing what she’s facing, they’re happier and do better when they feel they have a purpose that keeps them going. This restaurant is her purpose.”