Homestyle meets hearty with one of these local meat-and-potatoes meals.
When this magazine asked me to narrow dozens of reader recommendations into a list of eight great steak houses, I jumped at the assignment. Let’s face it: Tucking into a thick rib eye from House of Ribeyes in Oxford one week and then struggling to finish the last bite of my sizzling sirloin at Charlotte’s Beef & Bottle the next is a delicious duty.
But what’s a whole lot better and more interesting than the beef, I quickly realized, is how distinct and diverse the state’s steak houses are, and how each one bears the personal stamp of its owner. Chefs, restaurant owners, and kitchen workers are not like the rest of us. Believe me, anyone who stays in the restaurant business is obsessed. And you’ll never meet a more passionate bunch than the owners and operators of the independent steak houses our readers recommended.
For instance, Randy and Debby Cash at the Homestead in Timberlake know their customers’ personal favorite menu items, and they’ll call those customers when those items are available. In Kill Devil Hills, John and Matt Homcy serve custom cuts of beef and fan the flames on their 1,000-degree mesquite fire to keep their customers coming back to JK’s. Todd Smyly and his family at Yadkin Valley Steakhouse use granite rocks to turn up the heat under their steaks.
In this highly competitive man-eat-steak environment, the chain restaurants dominate. That’s why Smyly and other independents have to deliver a real measure of difference in order to succeed. Independents must do something the chains cannot do — listen to customers and present them with something they can’t find anywhere else. “We work hard because we want our customers to be proud of their hometown steak house,” Smyly says.
The big two
Two places kept coming up again and again as readers’ favorites — The Angus Barn in Raleigh and The Beefmastor Inn in Wilson. No two restaurants could be more different. The spacious Angus Barn serves as many as 1,200 steaks a night (plus veal, lamb, pork, chicken, and seafood) in more than a dozen different dining areas, ranging from country-casual, faux horse stalls to stunningly elegant, private dining rooms. With a 1,100-bottle wine cellar, The Angus Barn offers 40 wines by the glass, most of them in the $8 to $10 range.
By contrast, the compact, no-nonsense Beefmastor Inn has just 10 tables and no menu. There’s only one option — handcut rib eye, served with a salad and a baked potato. Ordering wine couldn’t be easier with 10 choices by the glass, half of them chardonnay and half white zinfandel — all of them value-priced at $4.50.
In spite of the differences, the two restaurants share a common philosophy: “We do things other people don’t,” says Chad Ellis, who worked at The Beefmastor Inn for nearly two decades before buying it in 2007. “I think independents have to go the extra mile if they want to continue to be here,” he says.
That’s a sentiment echoed again and again by the owners of all the steakhouses featured in the coming pages. “Restaurants take on the personalities of their owners,” says Van Eure, owner and operator of The Angus Barn. And when it comes to tucking into a fork-tender, sizzling steak, North Carolinians are lucky there’s still such a wealth of independent steak houses to choose from, each of them distinctly local and bristling with the personalities of their owners, with interiors that weren’t forged by some decorator out of Dallas, Texas, or a corporate focus group in Minnesota.
“We treat you like you’ve been here a thousand times, even if it’s your first visit, because when you leave here, we want you to be happy,” Ellis says. Ellis gets personal with his customers the second they walk in, greeting them from his grill station directly in front of the door. He gets to know them even better when he comes to their table and custom carves their steaks however they want them. “You get a hot potato straight out of the oven, and as soon as we pull the steak off the grill, it’s at your table within a minute,” he says. “Everything is hot and fresh as it can be.”
The Beefmastor Inn was founded in 1966 by Roscoe and Mildred Joyner. They went with “Beefmastor” because it sounded Old English, and it certainly distinguished it from similarly named restaurants, Ellis says. After 20 years, the Joyners retired, selling the restaurant to family friends Len and Laura Lewis, who served rib eyes for 20 more years. When the Lewises got ready to retire, they helped Ellis, who worked with them for 18 years as a waiter, buy the restaurant.
“I love the people who come in here,” Ellis says.
Meanwhile, at The Angus Barn, Van Eure’s formula for success is simple: “Listen to your customers, give them what they want, and treat them like royalty.” Eure became co-owner of the restaurant with her mother, Alice, after her father, Thad Eure Jr., died in 1998. She became sole owner in 1997 after Alice died. When he opened the restaurant 50 years ago, Eure Jr. knew his customer base: North Carolina natives who work hard and appreciate the value of a dollar. “So when they take the time to go out to eat, that’s major,” Van Eure says. “I may own the Barn, but the customer is the true boss.”
Things got going at the Barn in 1959 when a youthful Eure Jr., son of the late North Carolina secretary of state, went in with Charles M. Winston to purchase 50 acres of land for $6,750. The site was just off of U.S. Highway 70 about halfway between Durham and Raleigh. Critics wondered what the youngsters were thinking when they tried to borrow $200,000 to build a 275-seat, fine-dining steak house in the country. “Finally, in desperation, Eure turned to his father for the majority of the capital,” according to a history written last June for The Angus Barn’s 50th anniversary celebration. “The senior Eure mortgaged his home to guarantee the loan, proclaiming, ‘I believe in those boys!’”
He was right to. The Angus Barn has seated 13 million guests and cooked nearly that many steaks. The beef is all-natural and humanely raised and slaughtered.
So, why do we love steak so much? Van Eure has a guess.
“We started off as humans eating meat,” she says. “Our bodies crave protein. When you’re craving a steak, there’s really nothing else that’s going to take its place.”
Why not make it one from a local, homegrown steak house?
Additional stories on Great Steaks that appeared originally with this one:
Great Steaks: George Fine’s Beef & Bottle
Great Steaks: Homestead Steak House
Great Steaks: House of Ribeyes
Great Steaks: JK’s Restaurant
Great Steaks: The Peddler
Great Steaks: Yadkin Valley Steakhouse
David Bailey is an award-winning restaurant critic and food writer who lives in Greensboro.