3802 Maizeland Road, 596-9300
When Ken King traces back through his 34 years in the food-service business, he winds up at a hot dog stand he owned in Aspen.
"I tried to be a ski bum," he says, "but my dad raised an entrepreneur."
And, apparently, a damn good one. In this year's Best Overall Restaurant voting, Independent readers headed east away from established foodie hubs like downtown and the west side and named King's Steaksmith the best.
Steaksmith opened in 1980 in the building that formerly housed a branch of another local stalwart, Giuseppe's. With smooth curved walls and a Southwestern imprint, the steakhouse became a hotspot for satisfying diners' carnivorous tastes.
Over the years, it maintained popularity while seeing the demise of many competitors none more obvious than Stuart Anderson's Black Angus restaurant, the shell of which sits just a few short blocks north on Academy Boulevard.
But after 25 years, Steaksmith's original owners, Ralph and Jeanne Balding, decided to put their local baby on the market. (They still have a stake in their Santa Fe Steaksmith, the only other of the original three still remaining.)
King, whose restaurant design and consulting firm had worked on more than 70 projects around the country, happened to be looking for a restaurant to buy with his wife Debra at that time. After initially considering Zeb's on Eighth Street, Steaksmith came to their attention. Shortly thereafter, the deal was done.
More than a building or a business, what the Kings bought was an institution. Many staffers have been with the restaurant for nearly 20 years; turnover is something more aptly found on Steaksmith's dessert menu than in any employment discussion.
Christine LaFrenier, who started as a dishwasher 18 years ago, is now the director of culinary operations and head cook. She shies away from the title of chef, feeling it represents those more classically trained. And she takes her moment in the spotlight to talk up her coworkers.
"I am so proud of my staff," she says, "and I love the support I get here."
With staffing well under control, King's first order of business was to upgrade the beef. He found a supplier that could provide a 99 percent reduction in hormones and antibiotics, a change that took three months to implement.
"No one does beef like us," he says, noting that the sirloins are aged on-site and cut daily.
"Everything is made from scratch as well, from the soups to all the sauces," LaFrenier adds.
While King doesn't plan on changing things for the sake of change, or altering the restaurant's character, he does plan to make some minor updates to the menu and the interior. He knows he is up against the glamour of the downtown scene and even chain-tastic Powers Boulevard. ("I like Texas Roadhouse," he admits, "but the place has no heart.")
At Steaksmith, he says, "Every server has every table. It's about eye contact and awareness."
He believes the ability to anticipate customers' needs keeps them coming back. And he looks forward to people coming in and getting reacquainted with an old favorite.
"I do have 268 free parking spaces," he jokes.
Monika Mitchell Randall