A vintage shot of the bar at Herb and Thelma’s, which hasn’t changed.
There’s an endangered species of restaurants in our area. It’s the neighborhood lunch tavern. Recently, a friend turned me on to a gem of one in the Lewisburg neighborhood of Covington, Kentucky, called Herb and Thelma’s. They have been known for their burgers since opening in 1939, and are still using the same two lane grill that they used at opening, seasoned over nearly 80 years.
Lewisburg is the hilly neighborhood many have forgotten to the west of I-75 from the Mainstrasse and Pike Street exits. Historically, it was a neighborhood of slaughterhouses, and the Lewisburg Brewery – now the business of Papas & Sons, who make the local favorite opera cream eggs. Farmers from deeper in the bluegrass would drive their hogs, sheep, and cattle to Covington, broker a deal with the Lewisburg meatpackers, sell their livestock and spend one night partying in downtown Covington before heading home.
The building that houses Herb and Thelma’s was built before the Civil War as sort of a hall or saloon for the neighborhood. It sits on a pointed and hilly corner of Pike Street. There is a basement and subbasement in the well built stone foundation, that owners think has beer tunnels leading to the site of the old Lewisburg Brewery. Owners recently received a grant and unveiled a mural showing the old Heine’s Social Club, a drinking club with a philanthropic problem, that met at the tavern from the 1940s to the 1980s monthly. Heine was Henry Boehmker, who started the tavern. His son and daughter-in-law took over the tavern and it became Herb and Thelma’s.
New owners, Suzanne and Joe Fessler, bought the place from Chip, the grandson of the original founder, two years ago. But Chip still works Wednesdays, the day I met my friend for lunch. In his seventies, you can tell he’s in heaven cooking for the lunch crowd, mostly men in their seventies who have been coming to shoot the breeze over a beer and a good hamburger for the last half a century. There is also a spattering of millennials coming in to start the next generation of neighborhood burger lovers.
Former owner Chip Boehmker, inside Herb and Thelma’s.
When I walked into the tavern, I was greeted by Chip, and told him I was waiting for my buddy. A cheery man in his seventies waiting for his lunch buddy turned around and asked if I had ever been here before. Revealing my tavern virginity, he told me how he had been coming here for forty years, and bit of the history of the place and the area. We talked about the recent hate on Pete Rose, the mayor of Covington, and the outlook of neighboring Ludlow, Kentucky.
Inside the walls are lined with vintage local beer signs and advertisements, and historic photos of the family, like one of Chip’s parents with a very young Pete Rose, whom they met at a Bob Braun show. There is a case with an extensive collection of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky beer memorabilia that could rival any museum.
And now the most important part – the food! Each burger is freshly ground and hand pressed and sandwiched in a fresh buttered bakery bun. You can get single, double and cheese, with onions and pickles. The burgers are fresh, juicy, and delicious, cooked to a perfect medium rare, still pink in the center. Without a fryer, there are no French fries or chicken wings. But then there are no side salads or cole slaw either. ‘Appetizers’ include a wide assortment of local and gourmet potato chips in bags at the back of the bar. As an accompaniment to the burger you can order bean, veggie soup, or chili, which is what they put on their famous cheese coneys. There is also a grilled fish sandwich, and of course a wide selection of local beers, including Rhinegeist.
By the time we left, every table in the front room was full. My local friend tells me that Thursdays the place is packed with golfers from nearby Devou park. I am definitely a fan now and can’t wait to go back to try the famous cheese coneys.
The newly revealed mural on the side of Herb and Thelma’s Tavern.