Back in the 1960's, a number of - what was then - upscale steakhouse chains popped up across the nation offering good food in a wholesome family atmosphere. If you're over the age of 40, you probably remember Stuart Anderson's Cattle Company, Mr. Steak and Boar's Head, to name a few. All of those companies have gone out of business years ago, but one steakhouse name from the 60's that I do remember is Cork 'N Cleaver. It turns out there's still a Cork 'N Cleaver in Fort Wayne, IN and when I was out there with my colleague, Simon, for a presentation at Sweetwater we had dinner there one evening.
The first Cork 'N Cleaver opened in 1964 in the Phoenix area offering high quality steaks, seafood and chops in a casual and cozy Southwestern ranch-style setting. The concept was so popular that there were soon well over 80 locations in over two dozen states. In the mid-70's, the Chart House restaurant chain bought the Cork 'N Cleaver brand. Changing food attitudes spelled the demise for many steakhouse restaurants like Cork 'N Cleaver and the beginning of the end of many of the locations happened in the 80's. Chart House began to close Cork 'N Cleaver locations beginning in the early 80's and by the early 90's there were just three locations left - Fort Wayne, Evansville, IN and Kalamazoo, MI. (The original Phoenix location is still open, but was not part of the chain.)
In 1994, a young executive for Chart House restaurants, Wally Seward, bought the remaining three Cork 'N Cleaver locations from the corporation and moved his family from Daytona Beach to Fort Wayne. Quite seriously, that had to be both a cultural and climate shock for the Seward family. But Seward believed in the Cork 'N Cleaver concept and wanted to keep the name going. After all, he got his start in the restaurant business with Cork 'N Cleaver.
Wally Seward - pictured right
In 1975, Seward was a student at Jacksonville University in Florida when he took a job working at the local Cork 'N Cleaver location as a server. It was there where he met his future wife, Ellen, who was a hostess at the restaurant. Over the years, both Wally and Ellen earned promotions that took them to a number of Cork 'N Cleaver locations working in many levels of capacity. When Chart House bought the Cork 'N Cleaver restaurants, Wally became a Cork 'N Cleaver restaurant manager at locations in Kansas City and Orlando, then became a regional manager in Atlanta and in Cincinnati before becoming the V-P of Operations for Chart House at the young age of 34. He was 41 when he moved his wife and their three young kids to Fort Wayne.
Unfortunately, Wally Seward tragically passed away in 2007 at the very young age of 53 leaving Ellen and his son, Josh, to run the restaurant. Josh had gone to college to learn restaurant management so he could follow in his father's footsteps. He just didn't think that he was going to have to run the restaurant sooner than later.
I had picked up Simon at the airport earlier in the evening and we were at the hotel figuring out where we wanted to go eat dinner. It was a Sunday night and we knew that most restaurants wouldn't be all that busy - or we ASSUMED they wouldn't be that busy - so we didn't bother making reservations anywhere. When we finally decided to go to Cork 'N Cleaver, a restaurant Simon had eaten at before during his previous visits to Sweetwater, we took off for the 15 minute drive to the steakhouse. When we pulled into the parking lot at the location along Washington Center Road (see map) we found a very packed lot full of cars. I said to Simon, "Maybe we should have made reservations."
We went inside and found that it was, indeed, packed. The hostess told us that it would be a 10 to 15 minute wait, which wasn't that bad. I said to her, "We figured that on a Sunday night we wouldn't need reservations."
She sort of snottily replied, "We strongly suggest reservations at all times." It was like I was just talked down to by a maitre d' at a high-end Chicago or New York restaurant rather than some 20-something part-time hostess at a restaurant in Fort Wayne.
When we were finally seated, it was in one of the myriad of dining areas throughout the Cork 'N Cleaver restaurant. We were near the salad bar and in kind of a high traffic area. There seemed to be a lot of birthday celebrations going on in the restaurant involving families. And there also seemed to be a number of older people dining in the restaurant.
Our server for the evening, Pamela, greeted us and sat down the menu for that evening. It was literally engraved on a meat cleaver, not a sharp meat cleaver, but a real meat cleaver. It featured, of course, steaks and seafood, along with chicken and pork entrees. The only problem is that only one person could look at it at a time as there was just one. I wasn't certain that I liked the clever cleaver concept (I just couldn't wait to write that).
Pamela asked us if we wanted to start out with an appetizer and Simon said that he fancied the seared tuna with wasabi - six one-ounce pieces of sushi grade tuna, seared rare, drizzled with a wasabi sauce and served with kimchee cabbage and ginger. OK, that sounded good to me, as well.
While we were waiting for the tuna to show up, I looked long at hard at the cleaver menu to figure out what I wanted to get that evening. I definitely wanted a steak and the first thing that popped up on my screen was the Pepper Steak - a 14-ounce New York strip that is rolled in cracked peppercorns and marinated overnight. (They didn't say what it was marinated in.) However, it was served on a bed of grilled onions and topped with a brown sauce. (It didn't say what kind of brown sauce, so I figured it was just a gravy.) It sounded good except for the onions and the sauce.
They also had prime rib on the menu and I hadn't had prime rib in a long, long time preferring to eat more lean cuts of beef when I've gone out. But the 10 oz. prime rib sounded pretty good that evening.
Simon had his eye on the coffee-encrusted filet. He remembered that I had the coffee-encrusted filet at Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill restaurant in Vegas earlier this year. "You didn't like it, if I remember," Simon said.
I said, "I don't know if it wasn't that I didn't like it as much as I was disappointed that we had a fixed menu and what I really wanted to order that night wasn't available." Actually, it was pretty good.
Pamela came back with the seared tuna appetizer and asked if we were ready to order. I pretty much had made up my mind to do the pepper steak, but I wasn't sold on the grilled onions and the sauce on top. I asked if I could just get the regular New York strip rolled in the cracked peppercorns, then grilled. She said, "Well, the regular New York strip isn't marinated overnight." I asked if I could get the Pepper Steak without the onions and the sauce on the side and she said, "Sure!" Then she asked, "Would you like sauteed mushrooms to go along with it?" I couldn't say no!
Simon ordered the ground coffee filet with some rice pilaf. Pamela asked if we wanted any other sides and she made some suggestions including garlic mashed potatoes with crab meat. Oooo... That sounded good. I ordered that for Simon and I to share.
The seared ahi tuna appetizer was quite good, actually. It was served with both soy-sauce and a sort of honey-mustard sauce along with the kimshee. We both got three pieces each and it was a nice start to the meal. The tuna was very flavorful and delicious. It was a very good start to the dinner.
Along with the meal, we got Cork 'N Cleaver's "award winning" salad bar. I had forgotten my phone back at the hotel, so Simon did the honors of taking pictures of the meal for me. He tried to do his best in capturing the essence of the salad bar, but the back lighting was just too intense. The salad bar was really nothing special above and beyond any type of salad bar I've encountered at any similar steakhouses. The most notable exception was the sweet raspberry vinaigrette dressing that I got. Simon was just amazed. "I can't believe you got that dressing," he exclaimed. "It was more like raspberry jam!" It wasn't bad, but I wouldn't get it again if I went back. Simon got the homemade creamy bleu cheese dressing for his salad and he said it was good.
Pamela came back to pick up our salad plates after we were finished and let us know that our steaks were coming shortly. I ordered up two glasses of the Franciscan cabernet for Simon and I to enjoy with our meal. She brought them out the just before our steaks showed up on the table.
When our steaks came out, we were ready to eat. My steak wasn't covered in peppercorns the way I had envisioned it to be when I ordered. But it was rare with a cool center when I cut into it. I still don't know what they marinated the steak in, but it was pleasant enough to the taste and the meat was very juicy. I dipped a couple pieces of the steak in the brown sauce I had off to the side and I'm glad I didn't get it on top of the steak. While it wasn't bad, it would over overpowered the taste of the steak and I'm glad I decided to just get it on the side.
Simon poked at his steak and cut into it to make sure it was rare enough for him. He took a bite and said, "This isn't coffee. This is pepper." He sort of shrugged his shoulders and decided to eat it as is. It, too, was a perfect rare with the cool center. He was happy with what he got.
The sauteed mushrooms were a good complement to the steak, but the highlight of the meal had to be the garlic mashed potatoes with the crab meat. It was absolutely fabulous. I put it in between Simon and I and we took turns dipping into the potatoes and crab meat. The crab meat was chunky and you could easily taste it in the mix. I said, "You know, this is so stupidly easy to make at home. I don't know why I haven't made this before."
It was a lot of food and I had trouble finishing my steak. I don't know if it was from the meal or what, but I had some gastric uncomfort for the next couple of days while we were in Fort Wayne. I finally began to feel better around noon a couple days later. The steak was so large and so rich that it probably aided in my discomfort.
I can see why people in Fort Wayne flock to Cork 'N Cleaver. The service was very good, Pamela did a fine job in taking care of us. The food was good, definitely above average. I've had better steaks at other places, but the steak I had at Cork 'N Cleaver was tasty enough, although there was a lot of fat on it and it got tough to cut in some places. But you could get that anywhere. The atmosphere at the restaurant was fine enough, relaxing and inviting. I'm sure I'll be coming back out to Fort Wayne at some point and while I may not go out of my way to go have dinner at Cork 'N Cleaver, I could see myself going back for a good meal.