How This Pizza Restaurant in Rural Appalachia Became a Kentucky Institution
It’s Memorial Day weekend at Miguel’s Pizza just outside of Slade, Kentucky. Above a tree-bearded rockface to the south, a swell of charcoal rain clouds has started to barrel in over the ridge.
“Follow me up here,” instructs Miguel’s co-owner Dario Ventura, 34, as fat plops of water begin to hit the gravel parking lot. No one seems to mind the rain, though, as we scamper into a covered upstairs space called “The Zen Room”—running past toddlers playing in puddles; campsite tents polka-dotting the land like candy buttons; and enough people wearing strappy Chaco sandals to rival any outdoor music festival.
But you won’t find any jam bands playing here—at least, not officially. Located adjacent to Eastern Kentucky’s Red River Gorge—a sprawling 29,000-square-foot old growth forest known for its waterfalls and sandstone cliffs, among other geological wonders—Miguel’s has become not only a dining destination for those rock climbing, hiking, and camping in the Daniel Boone National Forest, but a model for how a restaurant can build an international community (and following) in rural America.
“My brother, sister and I grew up in the restaurant: We were literally the kids in diapers running around behind the counter,” Dario laughs. “And with all the people who came in over the years, I got to travel all around the world just by being here and meeting them.”
Dario’s parents, Miguel and Susan, moved to Slade from Connecticut in 1983 seeking a slower pace of life, and a year later opened a small ice cream shop called The Rainbow Door, serving 33 flavors to a steady trickle of visitors passing through the area. Soon, though, the rock climbers spending their days scaling crags and cliffs by hand inside the Gorge were looking for something a little bit more substantive to nibble on after a day of intense, bicep-bulging exertion. And in 1986, Miguel’s Pizza was officially born.
“The community that made our restaurant their home base kept saying, ‘We’re too tired to cook, and there’s nowhere to eat. You all should do some food,’” Dario says “My dad is the kind of person that if you give him raw ingredients, he’ll make something good. He doesn’t follow recipes, he’s a very hands-on cook. He started playing around and came up with a pizza dough that he really liked. It was lot of trial and error. For a long time, it was just like cooking for your friends who pay you.”
And while a busy weekend at Miguel’s in 1986 meant 30 orders going out the door, a busy weekend now means closer to 700 pizzas—not counting other popular items like salads and oven-baked pizza bowls, which often use locally-sourced vegetables from neighboring farmers. (For perspective, Miguel’s often serves more pizzas in two days than the entire population of the nearest town, which caps out at around 300 residents.) Topping options range from white beans and sweet potatoes, to broccoli and mango salsa: A kind of diversity that can be a welcome game of mix-and-match for those who seek adventure both in the wilderness and on their plates.
Every dish is personalized and made-to-order, with diners grabbing an old-school paper ticket and jotting down their desired combination of ingredients, then snagging an Ale-8-One (the unofficial, ginger-tinged cult soda of Kentucky) and finding a spot among the rambling sets of indoor and outdoor benches.
“Now that I think about it, Miguel’s was a remarkably cosmopolitan place to visit. In the summers, there was always a crowd of, like, beautiful French [rock] climbers who were camping out in the back of the restaurant and were happy to strike up a conversation,” says Chase Martin, a Kentucky-native who know serves as Foundation Manager for the Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation in Manhattan. “A friend of mine once ordered a black bean and avocado pizza there that blew my mind.”
Miguel’s freewheeling, funky spirit can perhaps best be embodied through the restaurant’s logo: A flowing-haired face with a toothy grin and eyes the same color as a dewy-blue morning in the Gorge. The face is iconic—like staring at the visage of an Appalachian Pizza God—and from tie-dyed t-shirts to bumper stickers, the logo is both a secret handshake and status symbol for those in the know.
“[The logo] probably started out as something my dad just doodled,” laughs Dario, pointing out that his father also etched the face into the sunshine-yellow building’s rainbow-striped door. “Now, you even see people who have it tattooed on them.”
Despite the restaurant’s significant growth over the years—mostly through word-of-mouth and the burgeoning rock climbing industry—Miguel’s still feels wholly organic and familial, with strangers chatting over choose-your-own-adventure-style slices and reveling in the fact that cell phone service is (blissfully) spotty so far out.
“We catch people off guard,” says Dario, smiling. “If you’re doing things like putting the nicest cheese on a pizza [like we are], people are going to assume that it’s expensive. But we’re just a mom-and-pop store that cares to take those extra measures.”