Saloon steaks out Oxford scene
Warm light hangs over the wood, casting a shadow down its planks. My mind lets me see the steaks sizzling on the grill, despite the solid kitchen wall that separates us. I try to take it all in as a toasty trail of something smoky leads me toward the table nose-first.
2013 Miami graduate and marketing coordinator for the new Dakota's Steakhouse, Katie Chokreff, sits across from me with a smile and a steamy plate.
"I can definitely see Dakota's being a long-term establishment in Oxford, especially one that people grow to love, where it's just kind of their go-to," she says.
It's been less than a year since Chokreff graduated. Only a couple months after leaving, she found herself returning to the town she loves to familiarize herself with the restaurant's western ways.
I turn to the other member of our party, Miami senior and Dakota's server Jared Lonsbury. It was a "Help Wanted" flyer he found on his way Uptown that drew him in.
"I've been here since the beginning, and then I'm going to be Dakota's bartender here in a couple weeks," he announces with a hint of pride.
Despite the number of eateries in the area, the pair pin Dakota's as the place to be.
Chokreff's eyes scan the walls as she talks about the eclectic hangings and how they make the place feel like home.
Peering across the room, she notes the long window looking into the adjacent bar they call the "saloon." Through the glass she points out her favorite artifact, the five-foot-wide bull's head watching over the saloon patrons.
As her eyes scan the room, mine wander back to the dish in front of her. She slides it across the oak surface, signaling for us to dig in, "Jared, you need to help us with this."
I prepare myself with a knife and fork, hoping to avoid an embarrassing barbeque beard as I attack the ribs. The tip cuts through like butter and I realize how tender the meat is. I ditch the lousy utensils and go all in - just the way you're supposed to.
The distraction has been devoured and I begin to wonder where it all came from: the Wild West dÃ©cor, the happy laughs of locals. They weren't here a couple months ago.
According to one of Dakota's several owners, Ed Steele, the Oxford location is the newest of seven across Ohio. The first made its debut in 2003 in the small town of Chillicothe, Ohio.
"The concept has been around almost 11 years, and we started it as basically just some fun on the west side of Chillicothe, which doesn't have a restaurant..." Steele says. "We kind of made it our hobby to come up with our own concept and see what happens."
According to the restaurant's official website, the owners' admiration of South Dakota's rich history and beauty led them to model the venue after the place where the "meals are hearty enough to satisfy the hungriest cowboy on the cattle drive."
Each location serves up home-cooked style comfort food, steaks and a never-ending list of beverages, including two signature beers.
Lonsbury lights up from across the table when Chokreff mentions the brews.
"We have the 'Pale Rider,' which is an IPA," he says. "It's got a little bit of a spicy citrus note to it and a fruity aroma, and it has definitely a more bitter, hoppy aftertaste."
Along with the robust menu, Dakota's setup incorporating a steakhouse and adjoining saloon make for a balanced customer base. The restaurant reels in Oxford regulars, while the saloon serves students a late-night sip.
"I think it would be a great place for kids, especially who live on the south end of campus, to come and get a drink before going Uptown - a good starting place," Lonsbury says.
Though Dakota's now brings in a stream of students, it aims to appeal to the locals as well.
"Students are only here nine months out of the year, so if you want this place to survive, you have to get the community backing before you get the student backing," Lonsbury says. "The students are only going to be here for four years, whereas the residents will be for 10 or 20."
As I look around the room and I see a family of five, a couple cackling and a lone man watching the ball game, I wonder, will Dakota's become another town tradition?
"We're not trying to win-out the Mac and Joe's, that's not at all what we're here to do," Chokreff says as if she can hear my thoughts. "But we also are here to be a new, fun part of the Oxford community and make our mark and stay here."
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