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Our Rich History: Popular White Horse Tavern, part of ‘Gourmet Strip,’ destroyed by fire in 1972

Color postcard of the White Horse Tavern

Color postcard of the White Horse Tavern before the “Keeneland” addition in 1956.

By Paul A. Tenkotte
Special to NKyTribune

The White Horse Tavern in Park Hills, just outside the city limits of Covington, was a Cincinnati area dining experience. Located at 1501 Dixie Highway (US 25/42), the White Horse was one of more than a dozen restaurants along what was once called the “Gourmet Strip.”

Other restaurants and clubs along the “Gourmet Strip” included Marshall’s (Park Hills), the Golden Goose (Park Hills), Town and Country (Park Hills), Lookout House (Ft. Wright), Oelsner’s Colonial Tavern (Ft. Wright), Hofbrau Haus (formerly Foltz’s, Ft. Wright), the Hearthstone (Ft. Mitchell), Greyhound Grill (Ft. Mitchell), Retschulte’s Five Mile House (Lakeside Park), Cabana Club (Erlanger), Colonial Cottage (Erlanger), Doc’s Place (Elsmere), the Swan (Elsmere), and Southern Trails (Florence).

Opened in 1936, during the Great Depression, the White Horse Tavern was the first restaurant on the “Gourmet Strip” heading south along the Dixie Highway from Covington. Its founder was Ben S. Castleman, Sr. The restaurant began with one small dining room, and a gasoline pump outside. Over the next 22 years, Castleman either remodeled or enlarged the restaurant nine times. In 1956, he added the “Keeneland Wing,” accommodating 200 diners.

By 1958, the White Horse employed 20 in the kitchen, 25 servers and hosts, and 4 mixologists. It was known throughout the area for its delicious food, including steaks, chops, fresh Maine lobster, country ham, and fried chicken. The atmosphere was cozy and inviting, featuring a fireplace, knotty pine paneling, and lots of pictures of famous race tracks and American thoroughbred horses. The restaurant opened daily at 11 a.m., closing at 1 a.m. on weekdays, and 2 a.m. on weekends.

Ben Castleman, Sr. loved horses and horse racing. He owned a farm in Lexington that bred horses. Historian James C. Claypool recalls that “Castleman tried to sell one of his horses at the Keeneland sales for $15,000, but to no avail. He received a call from a veterinarian named Hill, who represented some owners in Seattle. They offered $17,500 for the horse, and Castleman accepted. Named Seattle Slew by the new owners, the horse won the Triple Crown in 1977, and was undefeated through the Triple Crown races. Castleman then sold the broodmare who foaled Seattle Slew for $250,000.”

The White Horse has a home at the Behringer Crawford Museum

The White Horse has a home at the Behringer Crawford Museum

On Wednesday evening, January 26, 1972, fire swept through the White Horse Tavern. All employees and diners safely escaped. Caused by defective wiring, the fire totally destroyed the restaurant. Castleman temporarily relocated the establishment across the street in the old Golden Goose restaurant, but it subsequently closed in September 1972.

In October 1977, Ben Castleman reopened the White Horse at 3041 Dixie Highway, in the Heritage International Shopping Center in Edgewood. Nevertheless, the new White Horse was unable to rebuild its business, and closed less than a year after, in June 1978. In April 1983, Ben Castleman, Sr. died. He is buried in Highland Cemetery in Ft. Mitchell, Kentucky.

A bit of the old White Horse Tavern lives on, though. You can still see the iconic white horse statue that stood outside the old restaurant at the Behringer-Crawford Museum in Covington’s Devou Park.

We want to learn more about the history of family businesses in our region (Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte is Professor of History and Director of the Center for Public History at NKU.

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  1. Bill Goetz says:

    Great story, Paul. Truly a classic restaurant with superb food. Ben was the best. Always had fresh water, rolls, and butter. The waitresses were the best anywhere. Most of them were not “spring chickens” because they were so good, received great tips, and stayed on for a long time.

  2. Jettie Mescher says:

    Loved going to the White Horse for Christmas Eve dinner. It’s where we got engaged. I have part of a menu which was frozen on top of the cigarette machine when my husband went to pick it up after the fire. It has Chicken Liver Sauté for $4.15, Jumbo Shrimp for $4 and the most expensive item was Broiled New York Sirloin for Two for $14.50. Miss the good food these old restaurants served and the manner it was served in.
    Thanks for a great trip down memory lane.

  3. Judy Castleman says:

    Thanks for the nice article. My husband, Polk Castleman, Ben’s son, managed the White Horse Tavern for the 8 years before the tragic fire in ’72. Such wonderful family memories were a part of the “Tavern.” All the employees were like family. Many had been there over 20 years. We were privileged to know so many wonderful Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati people who came to eat lunch and dinner over the years. Some businessmen had lunch at the same table, with the same waitress, 5 days a week.

    After the fire, Polk took a job as the Asst. Food Service Manager at Kings Island and in 1973, became Food Service Manager at Kings Dominion in Richmond, Virginia. We still live in Richmond, but return to NoKy to visit family and friends often.

    • Kathy King Breeze says:

      My aunt Virgelene worked there as a hostess. Her husband John was. Bar tender but not sure if he worked there

    • Bill Bender says:

      Please send Polk my greetings. All the best to both of you and your family. I enjoyed many a family dinner at the White Horse in the ‘50s and ‘60s and took dates there when I was trying to impress them. Met Polk at Kings Island. Once he told me Derrick and The Dominos was Eric Clapton and I didn’t believe him. Can’t imagine him sharing an office with Nick Johnson (RIP).

  4. Philip Zumdick says:

    Our dear aunt Esther Virginia Zumdick was a hostess and bookkeeper at the White Horse.
    She loved that job. She is pictured 2nd from the right in the staff photo.

  5. Brenda Jackson says:

    A very special place , always enjoyed going there . We were having dinner at the Lookout House with my parents the evening it burned down when our waitress told us it was burning. When we left we drove down to see , what a loss . Probably ate at all the places listed and Beverly Hills , but the White Hosre was our favorite …..thanks for the memories of that great place ……

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