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December 8, 2010

The Taste Bud: Wagner’s Pharmacy still fans the flame

OK, so you’re going on a first date. What’s it going to be? Dinner at Seviche? A stop at 21c followed by Proof on Main?

Hackneyed. Overdone. Where’s your creativity?

I recently went on a first date (lunch, to ease the pressure), and after a lot of consideration, I decided on something cozy and casual, yet pragmatic. The destination? Wagner’s Pharmacy at South Fourth Street and Central.

What?

My reasoning: If I dropped this on her and she agreed without hesitation? Points in her favor. I was in luck, and we convened for our first official date at the lunch counter, right next to a garbage can. I brought her some Pez to seal the deal. (I’m so money.)

Neither of us had ever been to Wagner’s, although I spent many Saturdays on the backside at Churchill Downs (which is right across the street from Wagner’s) with my dad and horse-trainer uncle, and had always been aware of the non-descript little drugstore/eatery. Steeped in the horse-racing tradition, Wagner’s is a true original. It opened in 1922 and has been serving horse trainers and backside workers home-cooked plate lunches, sandwiches, soups and desserts ever since. (The restaurant also was depicted in the recent Disney film “Secretariat.”)

My new friend Stephanie and I chatted somewhat nervously as we made our selections and surveyed our surroundings. The walls are covered in horse-racing photos past and present, and people from all walks of life filled booths, tables and the lunch counter.

The day’s special was beef tips over egg noodles; cooked carrots were the side of the day. We saw one patron at the counter who raised a piece of buttered bread to take a bite, but couldn’t stop shoveling the tasty-looking beef tips into his mouth. Finally, after about five or six bites of beef as he held the bread inches from his mouth, he relented and took a bite of the bread.

At another point, an order ticket (yes, at Wagner’s they still hand-write orders, just as one would hope) was placed before the cook, who looked at the ticket and exclaimed, “What the hell is that?” Now that’s atmosphere.

It turned out Stephanie and I are fellow pickle lovers. Our friendly server, Clara, gave us some extras when I announced it as we perused the menu. (I was nervous, OK?) I ultimately ordered a cup of chili with a grilled cheese sandwich, while Stephanie chose the Derby sandwich from among the house specialties.

My chili arrived first, served in a John Conti coffee cup; I resisted the urge to ask for cream and sugar, and instead opted for black pepper and a few dashes of Tabasco. The chili was clearly homemade, with chunks of tomato, plenty of ground beef, onions, green peppers and spaghetti (optional). It was exactly the kind of comforting food my belly needed for a first date on a blustery day.

My grilled cheese was a bit overdone but still tasty, and was served with yet another pickle and chips. Stephanie was impressed by the thick Derby sandwich, piled with grilled honey-glazed ham (not lunch meat, mind you, but ham), tomato, mayo and Swiss cheese, with chips and, yes, another pickle.

The menu also boasts favorites like biscuits and gravy (breakfast at Wagner’s is legendary), delicious-looking homemade vegetable soup, a tuna melt and, of course, a bologna sandwich, either fried or cold.

Our lunch set us back a paltry $11 and change. It was worth that to just take in the atmosphere and muse on the interesting food art that hangs above the grill: hand-painted images of square cheeseburgers, pancakes and milkshakes that look like they’re straight from the 1950s. (Which they probably are.)

We asked Clara about how long she’d been with Wagner’s, and she joked, “I’ve been here since we opened.”

She also applauded my choice for a first-date destination. “Wagner’s is the place to be,” she said. So I made the bold move and asked Clara if she thought I’d be able to score a second date.

She looked at Stephanie, then at me, and said, “Hmm, I don’t know. Maybe.”

Shame about Clara’s tip.