HENDERSON, Ky. – When the very historic Metzger’s Tavern in Henderson was purchased by Moriah Hobgood in late 2017, she immediately closed the venerable corner bar and grill for an extended cleaning and announced it would henceforth be nonsmoking.
It caused a bit of consternation among the tavern’s regulars, many of whom feared that their favorite watering hole would be gentrified and lose its neighborhood feel.
True to Hobgood’s word, however, the bar has kept the original interior and almost all the original recipes intact. The menu remains a simple spread with famous bean soup and chili, burgers and sandwiches, hand-carved ham and cheese, grilled hot dogs and chili “dipped” dogs and pimento cheese.
A few new things have been added, too.
There’s now a veggie burger. All the sauces, from the ranch to the hot beer cheese, are made from scratch in house. There are three mixed veggie coleslaws to choose from: creamy garlic made with the house aioli, ranch, and spicy vinaigrette with a touch of grainy mustard and horseradish.
There’s a smoker now and the ham is not only baked and hand-sliced in house, it’s smoked there too. So is the Cajun bologna for the fried bologna sandwich. Occasionally some pork butts are thrown on for a pulled-pork special.
Every week, chef Craig Nelson creates a new sandwich that might be anything from a burger with pulled pork, bacon, smoked cheddar and onion straws, to grilled chicken with rosemary-truffle mushrooms, beer-caramelized onions and Swiss, to an Asian-style banh mi on a bun with soy pulled pork, lemon-ginger slaw and fresh carrot and cucumber.
Nelson, who began working at Metzger’s late last year, absolutely loves his job.
He was introduced to the world of cooking only about six years ago when he worked on the construction crew at The Dapper Pig and stayed on in the kitchen.
He spent the intervening years training with the best in Evansville, at The Dapper Pig, Sauced, Damsel Brew Pub, Bokeh Lounge, and Pangea Kitchen.
“I had been a patron here for a while; I love Metzger’s,” he said. “You walk up those stone stairs that are dipped in the middle because of how many people have walked in that door. You come in this building and it is 151 years old. It breathes history, it’s like a working, functioning museum. It’s an amazing place. I grew up in Saint Philip and always went to the St. Philip Inn and Weinzapfel’s Tavern, and I grew up in that tavern atmosphere and it’s something I carry in myself. Having been approached to run the joint, I was ecstatic.”
When we stopped in Metzger’s on a recent afternoon, the barstools held a collection of neighborhood folks enjoying a beer and a burger, exactly they way they have been for decades.
“We treat our regulars like family,” Nelson said. “Keeping that neighborhood feel is very important to us. Occasionally we’ll have somebody come in and say ‘it’s just not the same,’ but no matter, a week later they’re back in here again. They sit on that bar stool, and I’m gonna have butts on bar stools. And we have good conversation no matter what, and I know that.”
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Nelson uses mostly ingredients already in-house for his sandwich creations, so if there is a past special you’d like to order, chances are he can whip one up for you.
In late July, Metzger’s placed second in Kentucky Living Magazine’s Best in Kentucky contest for Best Hamburger, a jump up from their third-place awards of the last two years. With winners in the Eats & Drinks categories spanning the state from Lexington to Bowling Green to Paducah, that was no mean feat.
General Manager Katie Beth Pritchett is hoping for first place next year.
“I think that what makes our burgers so good is the grill, because of the way it’s seasoned,” she said. “We got a new one when we reopened in 2018 seasoned it, and now at night they clean it with ice water. A lot of places will use a lava rock and try to get all of that seasoning off, but this one is well-seasoned. And our beef is really good quality and is fresh, never frozen.”
The burgers are made with Kentucky Proud beef sourced right in the state. For any sandwich, Diners may choose a bun or Texas toast and add toppings from classic American cheese, lettuce and tomato to any of the house sauces, bacon, pickled or grilled onion, a fried egg, ghost pepper bacon jam, peanut butter, beer cheese and more.
Tables are currently distanced, and a drive-through window is open for easy order pickup.
Henderson bars and restaurants made quite a showing in the Best of Kentucky, with second-place awards for Farmer and Frenchman (winery), Henderson Brewing Co. (craft beer) Rock House on the River (pizza), J&B Bar-B-Cue (barbecue), and On Deck Riverside Bar and Grill (Live Music); and third-place awards for Hometown Roots (Down-Home Restaurant) and the WC Handy Fest (event or festival).
If you go
Metzger’s Tavern is at 1000 Powell St. in Henderson
Monday – Wednesday 7 a.m. – 8 p.m.
Thursday – Saturday 7 a.m. – 9 p.m.
Sunday – Closed
This article originally appeared on Evansville Courier & Press: Metzger’s Tavern in Henderson officially serves the second best burger in Kentucky