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Old-School Steakhouses

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By June Naylor
IN FORT WORTH, there’s one sure way to tell when real cowboys—the guys who make a living in the saddle—hit town: The steak joints ’round the Stockyards neighborhood on the north side get real, real busy. You see, true cowpokes don’t fool around with anything called “cowboy cuisine.” Guys whose whose work attire includes dirty boots, dusty chaps, and sweat-stained hats just don’t cotton to any food that bears a cute label.

Sure, folks who live in Cowtown crave their plates of big, elegant steaks at fancy beef palaces, as those cuts of prime beef go hand-in-hand with a costly bottle of Cabernet. But when it comes to good, old-fashioned meat ’n’ taters, you can’t do better than the down-home steak dining that grew up with the Stockyards in Cowtown’s early days. Some diners will order a glass of wine, but most regulars stick with their beloved longnecks or big, tall glasses of iced tea.

Here’s a tour of three old-school favorites, plus one unfussy newcomer. You’ll probably wind up hanging out at all four, even when the bullriders and Stock Show crowds have gone away until next winter.

Cattlemen’s Steak House. Certainly the most famous of Fort Worth’s steak restaurants, this institution has scarcely changed since the day it opened in 1947. Stuck comfortably in a time warp, Cattlemen’s walls are covered with Wild West murals and portraits of burly champion steers through the ages; the laminated plastic menus have changed only in prices and wine additions; and the shrewd waitresses take guff from no one. You can check out the steaks on ice in front of the charcoal broiler, but you’d have a hard time going wrong with any of the corn-fed, aged beef cuts. Cattlemen’s also offers barbecued ribs, lobster tails, and fried shrimp, but as our server told me one night, “Keep in mind, honey, we’re known for our steaks.”

I can never resist the 11-ounce, Heart of Texas rib eye, a heavily marbled jewel that fairly melts on the tongue and bears wonderful flavor as well as distinctive grill marks from the brick-encased grill, which has been in service since the restaurant opened. For spice addicts, the 12-ounce top sirloin cloaked in cracked black pepper is the only way to go. Chicken-fried steak can be a gratifying choice, thanks to a fresh, crunchy jacket and smooth cream gravy. The house dressing on the dinner salad gets a sweet boost from toasted sesame seeds, which will please anyone who misses the similar salad from Fort Worth’s long-lost Mac’s House. Cream cheese-stuffed jalapeños, served hot in fresh, fried batter, are good starters if you don’t go for the lamb fries. Dessert choices include homemade apple, pecan, and Key lime pie, as well as several types of cheesecakes and cobblers, and a three-layer chocolate cake. A welcome addition for some will be the list of wines by the glass, including a Silverado Merlot and a Hess Select Syrah.

Old-timers can always be found in the big wooden chairs throughout the assortment of rooms at Cattlemen’s, as can younger cowboys and cowgirls. Families figure among the customers, too, as does the town’s international roster of visitors throughout the year.

Star Cafe. A café since the early 20th Century—initially across the street in the space long-since occupied by the bootmaker/Western wear mainstay called Leddy’s—the Star might be the oldest restaurant in town, says owner Don Boles. Its current location on the Exchange Avenue incline is above the space once occupied by the Basement Bar (around the 1920s). The Star moved to the site in the 1930s. Don notes a time when the café briefly functioned as a Black-Eyed Pea, before he bought it in 1980 and turned it into a friendly steak shop. Today, it continues as a no-frills spot for tearing into giant steaks and listening to a throwback jukebox that dishes up big servings of George Jones, the Andrews Sisters, Elvis, and Ernest Tubb. The Star pulls in its share of couples and solo diners, who take up the stools lining the long, front counter, and families crowding into chairs at vinyl-topped tables scattered around the worn, wooden floors.

The bacon-wrapped filet mignon, topped with sautéed onions and mushrooms, is a dependable, surprisingly tender steak for such a lean cut. The big menu favorite, however, is an 11- to 12-ounce top sirloin called a “baseball steak” for a good reason. (It’s round like a baseball and three or four inches thick.) Don’t skip the chicken-fried steak, though; this giant, tenderized slab comes with a fresh, flaky, well-seasoned crust and velvety gravy. Big baked potatoes are standard issue, while long, crispy French fries are also a worthy accompaniment. The house salad is a plate of iceberg lettuce topped with sliced green olives, grated American cheese, and a tart vinaigrette. The homemade apple pie is fine if you’ve got a sizable appetite.

Riscky’s Steakhouse. Formerly Theo’s Saddle and Sirloin Inn, this landmark was opened by Polish immigrants in the early 1920s. Facing the Stockyards rodeo coliseum, the Saddle and Sirloin became a haunt for saddle tramps, cattle barons, and visiting celebrities, who came in search of slabs of beef and the delicacy known as calf fries. Another Polish family called Riscky, whose little grocery operation on the north side grew into a Fort Worth barbecue dynasty, seamlessly took over the steak operation a few years back. Tables in the ramble of rooms are generally filled with families, about half of whom look like they might come from ranches or farms. It’s always a casual crowd, right at home in a space that’s part saloon and part re-created pioneer town.

Among several Certified Angus Beef picks, I found the “first cut” strip steak, seared over a mesquite fire to trap juices inside, to be magnificently tender. Other temptations include an 18-ounce T-bone and a 12-ounce flat iron steak. An impressive non-beef option was the cowboy chicken, a giant, butterflied breast that was grilled over mesquite and cloaked in a layering of smoky bacon, sautéed onions and mushrooms, and thick, melted Swiss cheese. Tender calf fries are usually the best in town, with or without the cream gravy. The side dish of stuffed potatoes, closely resembling twice-baked potatoes, is rich, cheesy decadence.

H3 Ranch. Named for three brothers from a family called Hunter who immigrated to the States from Scotland in the 19th Century, this youngster among the Stockyards steak joints adjoins the

historic Stockyards Hotel at the corner of Exchange Avenue and North Main Street. Opened in 1998, H3 is a laid-back place with an open kitchen, allowing diners to watch as food sizzles over a hickory fire. Leather chairs are more than comfortable, and plenty of saddles and saloon-style art add to the Old West feel.

The thick-sliced smoked sirloin steak is the best choice. Two can share the two-pound porterhouse, while heat-seeking tongues can take on the bone-in rib eye crusted in Cajun spices. Alternatives to beef include an eight-ounce salmon filet chargrilled on a cedar plank, juicy spit-roasted suckling pig, and hickory-grilled rainbow trout. Not up for a big meal? Sip one of the smooth amber brews called Buffalo Butt, and graze on the layered dip called Nine Miles of Dirt Road (it combines refried beans, guacamole, sour cream, onions, black olives, and cheddar cheese), which you tuck into using tortilla chips.

Folks packing this place often include tourists, fresh from the saddle barstools next door at Booger Red’s Saloon, as well as locals coming back for more of that smoked sirloin. It’s always a casual crowd, decked out in nothing more special than blue jeans.

THE FORT WORTH STOCKYARDS NATL. HISTORIC DISTRICT is centered around E. Exchange Ave., on the north side of town. The district also features lodging, shopping, and entertainment. For details, call 817/624-4741;

Call ahead to confirm hours and other details. THE AREA CODE IS 817.

CATTLEMEN’S STEAK HOUSE, 2458 N. Main St., 624-3945; Steaks $20-$25. Opens daily for lunch and dinner.

STAR CAFE, 111 W. Exchange Ave., 624-8701. Steaks $10-$23. Opens daily for lunch, as well as for dinner Tue-Sun.

RISCKY’S STEAKHOUSE, 120 E. Exchange Ave., 624-4800; Steaks $17-$39. Opens daily for lunch and dinner.

H3 RANCH, 109 E. Exchange Ave., 624-1246; Steaks $19-$33. Opens daily for lunch and dinner, and for breakfast Sat-Sun.

Read 18993 times Last modified on Friday, 13 July 2012 13:06

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