On our way home from our trip to Colorado, we stopped in North Platte, NE to get some gas and a bite to eat for lunch. North Platte is almost exactly half-way between Denver and Omaha, the place we were going to end up for the night. We asked a lady at the gas station if there was a good place to eat nearby and she offered two suggestions. The first suggestion was across the road and in a hotel. We pulled up to the place and found that they're closed for lunch on Saturdays. The second suggestion was the North Platte location of Whiskey Creek Wood Fire Grill. We went back across the road to have a sandwich at Whiskey Creek. (see map)
I've eaten at a Whiskey Creek Wood Fire Grill a couple times before. I first visited the Kearney, NE location on my own a number of years ago, and I took a dealer out to dinner to the Whiskey Creek in Fremont, NE (now closed) not long after that. I don't remember much about either place because it has probably been 14 years since I'd been there. But I did remember that it was a casual restaurant with sort of a Western theme to the place. Even though it was a small regional chain, I thought it was worth another try.
The original Whiskey Creek opened in 1995 in Casselberry, Florida. Larry Terrell's concept for Whiskey Creek was to offer high quality food with good sized portions at a reasonable price. In 1996, a group of investors headed by restauateur James "Jim" Gardner (pictured right) bought the Whiskey Creek concept from Terrell and moved the corporate headquarters to Kearney, NE.
Jim Gardner had been in the restaurant industry since he was 15 - first working at a Country Kitchen restaurant as a dishwasher and moving all the way up to manager by the time he was 19. He ended up being one of the youngest franchisees for Country Kitchen and eventually owned a number of Country Kitchen locations throughout the Plains and Upper Midwest. In the mid-90's, he divested himself from his Country Kitchen franchises and became the principal stock holder in Wild West, Inc. - an investment group that eventually became one of the two investors in the Whiskey Creek concept. Five years after teaming together to start Whiskey Creek in Nebraska, Gardner's Wild West group bought the remaining shares of Whiskey Creek from the other investment company. Gardner also develops and owns hotels in the Plains states, and along with his wife, Sue, they run a small Christian broadcasting network based out of Minnesota.
Sensing a need for a family-style and somewhat upscale restaurant in small markets, Jim Gardner focused on putting Whiskey Creek locations in smaller towns in Minnesota, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa and South Dakota. (There is a location in Port Charlotte, FL, as well.) The largest city you'll find a Whiskey Creek in the Upper Midwest or Plains states is in Rochester, MN. He has locations in places such as Scottsbluff, NE; Hays, KS; St. Joseph, MO; and Mason City, IA. Wild West, Inc. had hoped to add as many as 38 more locations over a five year period beginning in 2008, but the economic slowdown crippled their plans. They opened their 13th location in Brookings, SD, about a year ago.
Whiskey Creek sources their meat from ranchers close to their restaurants. The fresh meat is seasoned with a proprietary blend of spices and cooked over a wood grill featuring oak and ash wood. They say this way of cooking meat allows for a more healthy alternative as the fat from the meat will drip into the fire, giving it a signature taste of wood smoke and fat drippings. Yeah, OK. I get it. But it's not like Whiskey Creek has the concept cornered as their own.
The North Platte location is similar to the other Whiskey Creek's that I'd been to. It featured wood floors with large wooden booths and a large wooden bar. The smell of oak wood smoke emanated from the kitchen as we walked in. We were greeted by a young lady who ushered us to a booth near the bar. She left off a couple menus and took our drink order.
One of the signature themes at Whiskey Creek in addition to the Western motif is the inclusion of hard-shelled peanuts at the table. As we were greeted by the server, she grabbed a bucket and filled it with peanuts from a big box toward the front of the restaurant. I had ordered a beer (Cindy was driving) and was cracking peanut shells, then hungrily devouring the peanuts inside.
The lunch menu isn't much different from the dinner menu at Whiskey Creek, but there's more of an emphasis on sandwiches, appetizers, soups and salads. I had promised Cindy that I would take her to The Drover in Omaha that night (click here to see my entry on The Drover), one of my favorite Omaha steakhouses that I had never taken her to before. I didn't want a big lunch and Cindy only wanted a salad and a sandwich, as well.
Their burger is called "The Hoss". It features a half-pound hand-pattied ground steak burger topped with colby jack cheese, applewood-smoked bacon and a bacon-mayo sauce. It's served on a ciabatta bun and fries come with it. That sounded good, but I saw they also had a French Dip sandwich, as well as a prime rib sandwich. I went back and forth thinking about both the French Dip and the prime rib sandwich in my mind. When it came time to order, I got the prime rib sandwich. I don't know why. I just heard myself saying it.
Cindy went with the Hoss burger, but she also got a house salad instead of the fries because she felt she needed some greens to go along with it to help offset the healthy negatives of having a cheeseburger. I think there was a two dollar upcharge for substituting the salad for the fries. She also asked for the bacon-mayo sauce on the side.
The salad came out first and it was huge. It featured lettuce greens, fresh red onion rings and large grape tomatoes. Cindy had me share it with her as she was worried that I'd get too filled up on the peanuts I was cracking and slamming back. The salad was fine - nice and fresh.
Our meals showed up at the table and Cindy's burger was huge. She said, "Oh, my God! There is no way I can eat all this." The bacon criss-crossed across the top of the burger that was enveloped in what looked like a slab of colby-jack cheese. She cut it in half and after he first bite she said it was good. "It's almost too smoky in taste," she decided. "But, yeah, it's fine."
My prime rib sandwich wasn't exactly what I had pictured in my mind for a prime rib sandwich. The prime rib had been grilled and it was more like a traditional steak sandwich served on a toasted hoagie bun. I had asked for the prime rib to be as rare as possible, figuring that they had to cut the piece of meat off a large shank of prime rib. Upon further review, it looked like they just took a steak cut - hopefully from a prime rib - and cooked it over the wood grill fire.
The taste was fine with the sandwich, but it wasn't great. It was sort of thin and did have some pink in the middle. I wasn't certain if I liked the seasonings they used on the meat, but it didn't overpower the taste. The meat was tender and easy to chew. For a steak sandwich, I'd give it a B. As a prime rib sandwich, I'd give it a C-.
For what it is, Whiskey Creek is all right. It fits its niche in small markets quite well. The menu is full and varied, the atmosphere is relaxed, and the service we had was good. It's not world-class food, but it's fine for what it is. There's probably better places to eat in each of the small cities where there's a Whiskey Creek Wood Fire Grill, but it would be worth a visit if you were in quandary where to go for lunch or dinner.