Walking through the door at Graze Market and Cafe is like stepping back into a simpler time.
Picture dark, gleaming wood, the kind that makes visitors acutely aware of the ring a glass will leave if they aren’t careful; fresh flowers on every table in rich colors that bring to mind a country field at dusk; cooking scents that awaken hunger the way spending time outdoors does.
Maybe it brings back childhood memories, or smells like a summer evening at grandmother’s house. It’s the kind of rustic place that makes someone stop and appreciate the surroundings; no matter how “plugged-in” you are during the rest of the day, you will want to put your phone down and just relax here.
That’s exactly the goal the owner, 30-year-old Craig de Villiers, had in mind when he opened the restaurant in 2013, and it’s a feeling that translates through the hand-hewn wooden benches, tables and bar that Craig himself crafted.
It’s a hobby that was born of his desire to do something outside of cooking that would make his restaurant stand out, and stand out it does, enough to attract so many would-be diners that reservations are required.
Yet on the outside, Graze is a small, unimposing white building — more like a vintage farmhouse than a typical restaurant — located across from a field full of very vocal cows. There is a gravel parking lot, a picturesque patio area and a front porch that creaks good-naturedly when you walk across it.
A screen door does more than keep the flies out; it adds to the feeling of comfort, as though one has just come to the home of a beloved family member for dinner.
Inside, it doesn’t take long to feel the weight of history the building at 150 Combs Ferry Road bears.
At around 130 years old, the structure used to house the Pine Grove post office and, later, a general store. Wooden beams on the ceiling are braced with metal brackets from a railroad track that once ran nearby.
The owner’s thick and sturdy bar runs the length of one wall, behind which is a refrigerator filled with cool drinks (including Ale-8, of course) and desserts, along with a rack of liquor bottles that gleam like jewels in the unobtrusive lighting.
On the wall above is an enormous chalkboard which holds the day’s offerings, all of them fresh and ever-changing according to their availability. The idea is to partner with and support local farms and small businesses, so patrons can expect mostly locally-sourced beef, lamb, bison and vegetables, among other items. Seafood is trucked in and used right away. Stacks of ribs spend hours in the smoker, and if they don’t get sold by themselves, the chef finds a way to use them in another dish.
Offerings have included brisket poutine, steak, pasta, charcuterie and chicken curry, which Craig said is a favorite back home in South Africa and will likely be included in seasonal dishes when the holidays roll around.
His idea of “global comfort food” has been received well by locals, perhaps in part because in every recipe there is both an exotic flavor and a local ingredient; it’s like craving something you have never had before and being completely satisfied when you get it.
One thing noticed upon entering Graze’s Winchester location is the intimacy. There is only enough seating for about 20 people, and half of that is on a long bench running the length of the wall opposite the bar, which means diners may be seated next to a stranger.
Pair that with the textile art on the walls, the powerful smell of freshly-brewed coffee and the vintage charm of the building, and what diners get is a cozy experience that leaves the feeling they have stumbled through a door to the past.
It’s a great place for a small gathering, such as a bridal shower, and Craig said they will rent out the restaurant for just such an occasion. The staff has also done catering for various events, which has allowed them to get the Graze name beyond its doors.
As for the challenges that come with working in such a small space, Craig said he feels it meshes well with the aesthetic he and his partners are going for.
“It’s been a bit of a double-edged sword…but I think it fits very well for us. We always want to bring that homey feeling to our customers,” Craig said. “We weren’t trying to go out and compete with other big restaurants.”
That feeling is echoed in the Lexington location at 207 S. Limestone, but there is a bit more room to move around with about 50 seats inside and 20 more outside.
After the success of the first Graze location, Craig found it difficult to have to turn people away because of a lack of seating and began thinking about opening up another option.
“We rely on reservations … during the week not so much, but on the weekends, it gets pretty busy,” he said.
The Lexington location — which opened in December 2016 in what used to be House Of Soul — also has a bit more on the menu, although nothing is set in stone.
Part of the beauty of Graze is that Craig and his team come up with the dishes according to the ingredients they have available and what the mood calls for rather than planning them. Admitting he is “terrible with recipes,” Craig said he doesn’t like to use them, preferring instead to feel his way through it.
“I get bored with a dish very quickly, so we may have similar options later on but change them up a bit,” he said.
The unique challenge Craig and his team face with the Limestone location is that, unlike the first Graze, it is in an area where foot-traffic is abundant, so there are more walk-ins that have to be accommodated.
It also draws a bit of a younger crowd, so certain adjustments needed to be made — pricing was changed around and more volume was added to the bar, allowing for a bigger selection of bourbons. The hours may be longer for the staff, but having experience with the Winchester restaurant has allowed Craig and his partners to come into the new location with a bit more confidence.
There are no prices or information on the chalkboard that holds the day’s offerings, and that is because Craig likes for his customers to have a conversation with their server about the food. This not only encourages a relationship between the staff and guests, it makes the entire process a bit more special. It also keeps the customers from being scared to try a new dish that they may not know much about, which is imperative for an eatery that relies on a chalkboard menu.
While Graze has been open for breakfast and lunch in the past, it is now a dinner-only affair, in part because it was so difficult for Craig and his small staff (only three to four people at the Winchester location) to keep it going.
Along with co-owners Damion Scott and Charles Ferrell, Craig keeps his employees close by treating them like family members, a testament to his love for the restaurant. They are both an extension of the business and of him, making them invaluable. Craig said one of his ultimate goals is to keep that family atmosphere more important than making money.
“So far, we have been successful with that, and we have been fortunate enough to be able to keep most of our people without a lot of turnover,” he said.
Damion, Craig said, is more of a “numbers guy” who takes over the business-related aspects of the restaurant, leaving ample room for Craig to be creative and do what he loves. D.J. Adkins runs the Lexington kitchen.
With a soft-spoken nature and shy smile, Craig doesn’t immediately seem like the kind of person who would be at home running multiple businesses.
Yet he seems extremely comfortable working in such a rural environment, moving with ease both behind the bar and outside the restaurant, where farmland dominates the scenery.
Douglas Owens, who owns the land Graze is situated on, also owns the Red Devon cows across the way and has praised Craig’s talents as a chef, which the young entrepreneur said were honed back home. His parents don’t take credit for his culinary skills but are supportive of his efforts. His father was a professional hunter and also worked with horses, a trade that Craig got involved in and one that ultimately brought him to Kentucky.
It was during his time at Lane’s End Farm in Versailles that Craig began cooking for his co-workers, and soon word-of-mouth was so strong regarding his talents in the kitchen he landed a job as sous chef at Italian restaurant Bellini’s in Lexington.
After nine months, he had learned a lot about the restaurant business, but knew he was ready to open his own place.
Now, at just 30 years old, he has accomplished part of his dream as a restaurateur.
The next part is still in progress.
Speaking about his desire to move on to different projects, Craig said he has a bakery in the works that will be located next door to Graze’s Limestone location. Dates and specifics aren’t set in stone yet, but even the consideration of a third business venture is a testament to his work ethic. This young entrepreneur is moving from one goal to the next, trying a bit of everything, like a cook sampling his creations.
The bakery isn’t alone at the top of his to-do list, either. Craig has plans to start brewing his own beer, and while it may only have limited availability at first, the idea of bringing a brewery to Winchester — no matter how small — is a novel one. Kentucky has seen an influx of microbreweries in the past few years, leading to the Kentucky Proud organization’s announcement in June that they would be partnering with Kentucky Brewers to create six new beers this fall.
With so many craft beer sites popping up in and around Lexington it makes sense for Graze’s next move to be accompanied by barley and hops. It’s one of many ways in which Craig wants to support and help grow Winchester, a sentiment echoed in his dedication to using locally-sourced ingredients.
Perhaps part of the reason Graze has done so extraordinarily well is that many people are looking for a way to make their lives better, their bodies healthier, their eating cleaner. Dining in a restaurant where everything from the beef to the tomatoes come from right down the road is a mighty appealing option.
Community, fresh farm-to-table food and a laid-back vibe are the three key elements to Graze.
Yet it’s not all about an expectation of what the food will be like, or even the way the atmosphere takes you to a place outside the norm.
It is important to Craig that his customers come in without expectations, in part because he knows how easy it is to be let down when you allow your mind to build something up.
When asked what he wants customers to know before they come in, he says simply that they don’t have to be anything in particular.
“You don’t have to get dressed up,” he said. “Just come in, eat and relax.” §