Bite into that deep-fried-to-a-golden-crisp crunchy exterior and into moist, tender and juicy chicken. Colonel Sanders’ secret-recipe fried chicken smells like heaven, tastes like Sunday picnics and leaves a trail of deliciousness meant to be licked straight off your fingers.
This is the story of a colonel named Sanders who blended together 11 herbs and spices nearly 80 years ago (and changed the fast food industry forever) and a place where his recipes are still made, cherished and plated with all the sides and Southern hospitality you’d expect from a restaurant specializing in home-style country cooking.
The Sanderses arrived in Shelbyville in 1959, presumably with the world’s most famous herbs and spices in hand, and made Blackwood Hall the company’s corporate headquarters. Nine years later, in 1968, they opened a restaurant featuring the colonel’s original-recipe fried chicken as a key part of its non-fast-food dinner menu. Originally named The Colonel’s Lady after, well, the colonel’s lady – Sanders’ wife, Claudia – the restaurant is of course local Shelbyville icon, the Claudia Sanders Dinner House.
The original restaurant burned to the ground in 1999 and the rebuilt restaurant – looking straight out of the antebellum south – is an enormous structure in white trimmed with black shutters, with six 2-story white columns gracing the main building, floor to ceiling windows, and a rocking chair front porch. The interior is warmed up with fireplaces and the tantalizing aromas of fried chicken and other comfort-food dishes.
Fried chicken is on the restaurant’s full and family-style dinner menus as well as featured on the Sunday buffet. The colonel’s milk gravy? It’s there, too – part of Claudia’s Chicken Special – along with mashed potatoes and a scratch-made veggie of choice. Think seasoned country green beans, corn pudding, creamed spinach, macaroni and cheese and other Southern faves.
In his early years in food service – 1939 to be exact – Col. Sanders got a shout-out from Kentucky pioneering food critic Duncan Hines in his Adventures in Good Eating restaurant guide. Hines called Sanders’ then-restaurant “a very good place to stop en route to Cumberland Falls and the Great Smokies” with “sizzling steaks, fried chicken, country ham, hot biscuits.”
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All these items appear today on the menus at Claudia Sanders Dinner House, along with lots of other entrées, including pork chops, fish, lasagna and more, and a selection of homemade pies, fruit cobblers and bread pudding.
The restaurant also has a gift shop (with copies of the famous Claudia Sanders Cookbook for purchase) and the Saddlebred Lounge, where diners can head up the Grand Staircase for a cocktail before or after dinner.
You’ll pass a portrait of Harland and Claudia Sanders along the way – he in the white suit he made nearly as famous as his fried chicken – and will quickly understand why Sanders remains the official face of Kentucky Fried Chicken. That twinkle in the colonel’s eye? You can’t buy sincerity like that.
Other places to lick your fingers
Besides the Claudia Sanders Dinner House, Shelbyville has other venues where you can enjoy delicious fried chicken:
-Red Lion, known for its tudor-style menu, plates its fried chicken with potato and vegetable of the day.
-Eleanor Hamilton’s Old Stone Inn serves a half chicken fried golden brown in the atmospheric setting of the oldest stone residence in Shelby County that is both standing and occupied.
-Perfectly seasoned fried chicken piled high and served hot is a specialty at YLB Catering & Event Planning Services, a full-service catering business.
Did You Know? Harland Sanders was a late bloomer who began building his fried chicken empire at an age when many people begin looking ahead toward retirement. He initially served meals to travelers in the back of a service station, then from a 142-seat restaurant, and finally from a restaurant-motel complex, which he operated from 1940 to 1956. Sanders and wife Claudia moved to Shelbyville in 1959, opened a company headquarters and focused on franchising. In 1964, at age 73, Sanders sold KFC. The Colonel’s Lady was opened in 1968 and eventually renamed the Claudia Sanders Dinner House. It is the only non-KFC restaurant that serves an authorized version of the fried chicken recipe.