Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Best of the best

"Every Day with Rachael Ray" has been receiving a lot of e-mails from readers wanting to know where LeMars, IA is.

Just ask 46-year-old Bob Rand, owner of Archie's Waeside.

But, why the sudden interest?

The LeMars based eatery caused quite a stir in the March issue of Rachael Ray's monthly food and living magazine.

Taking a play off the source of March madness - NCAA basketball play-offs, "Every Day with Rachael Ray" created its own single-elimination tournament bracket. Not of college basketball teams, though. Steakhouses seemed a more appropriate choice for the magazine.

For what the magazine deemed the "Great American Steakhouse Challenge," it composed a list of 200 restaurants from recommendations give by well-traveled colleagues, restaurant reviewers and industry experts.

Just being selected for a spot in the top 200 steakhouses in the country pleased Rand, but when he found out Archie's Waeside had advanced to the top 64, he was beside himself.

"That was wonderful," he said. "After 60 years of being here, to be recognized like that is just wonderful. In my eyes, those restaurants, almost all of them, which I've either eaten at or I know of them or know the owners, they're iconic to me. I mean, they're from all over the country."

After the list was narrowed down to 64, Archie's Waesdie, the only Iowa steakhouse on the list, was pitted against big city restaurants like Annie Gunn's in Chersterfield, MO, Five O'Clock Steakhouse in Milwaukee, WI, Ray Radigan's in Pleasant Prairie, WI, St. Elmo Steak House in Indianapolis, IN, Plaza III, The Steakhouse in Kansas City, MO, Gorat's Steak House in Omaha, NE, Cattlemen's Steakhouse in Oklahoma City, OK, Ferris Steak House in Cleveland, OH, Mitchell's Steakhouse and The Top Steak House in Columbus, OH, Murray's Restaurant and Manny's Steakhouse in Minneapolis, MN and Gene & Georgetti, Keefer's Restaurant and Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse in Chicago.

Archie's Waeside competed head-on against Annie Gunn's for a spot in the top 32, and after beating out Gene & Georgetti, advanced to the sweet 16, along with Five O'Clock Steakhouse, Plaza III, The Steakhouse and Gorat's Steakhouse in the Midwest, Carnevino in Las Vegas, NV, Cut in Los Angeles, CA, Perini Ranch Steakhouse in Buffalo Gap, TX and El Raigon in San Francisco in the West, Peter Luger Steak House in Brooklyn, NY, Robert's Steakhouse in New York City, NY, Barclay Prime in Philadelphia, PN and Grill 23 & Bar in Boston, MA on the East coast and Bern's Steak House in Tampa, FL, Pappas Bros. Steakhouse in Houston, TX, Doe's Eat Place in Greenville, MS and Kevin Rathburn Steak in Atlanta, GA in the Gulf South.

"Every Day with Rachael Ray" hired 16 eaters to test the semifinalists. As they each traveled to their assigned steakhouse, the reviewers were armed with worksheets with a rating system that totaled 100 points. No restaurant received a perfect score, but Archie's, along with Gorat's Steak House, Carnevino, El Raigon, Peter Luger Steak House, Grill 23 & Bar, Bern's Steak House and Kevin Rathburn Steak advanced to the final eight.

The restaurants were all reviewed once again, narrowing the field down to Grill 23 & Bar, El Raigon, Bern's Steak House and Archie's.

"It's kind of funny," Rand said. "You look at the final four, and it's Boston, San Francisco, Tampa and LeMars, Iowa."

John T. Edge, a contributing editor at "Gourmet" and "United Tastes" columnist for the "New York Times" and the "Oxford American," boarded a plane and for four consecutive nights, flew to each restaurant - starting with El Raigon, then to Grill 23 & Bar and then to Archie's, where he snacked on house-corned beef and devoured a dry-aged porterhouse. To Edge, Archie's was the clear winner, until he sliced into his medium-rare porterhouse at Bern's, declaring the Tampa steakhouse the overall victor.

Archie's may not have taken home the grand prize, but Rand was still pleased with his restaurant's second-place finish.

"It's unbelievable, actually," he said. "Some of those steakhouses have been around for 100 years and they're the benchmark of our industry, but, like I said, we're very fortunate to even be mentioned, much less to get to the final four and then to get second place."

So, how did the LeMars restaurant go from being one of Northwest Iowa's hidden gems to the second-best steakhouse in the country?

"Probably the greatest advantage we had in the contest is that the bets beef in the world is raised right here in Northwest Iowa and Northeast Nebraska," Rand said. "We're purchasing the best of that meat every day, and we take it and dry age it and hand cut every steak right here."

But, the dry-aged, hand-cut steak hasn't been the only menu item gaining notoriety at Archie's Waeside.

Rand makes frequent trips to Napa, CA, in constant search of the finest wines to compliment the menu selections at Archie's.

"I spend a lot of time in Napa. I've made a half a dozen trips a year for the last 10 years looking for small artisan wineries," he said. "To get a lot of our wines, you'd have to see wine lists in Chicago, Denver, New York, cities like that to find even close to what we carry."

While Rand said the restaurant carries a fair amount of Australian wines as well, California varieties are where he focuses the most attention.

"We have as few as a couple hundred cases from many of the wineries we carry, and many of the wineries that we have on our list are only on a half a dozen lists in the whole country," he said.

But Archie's quality selection of wines must have piqued someone's interest, as the restaurant is also one of the top 20 semifinalists for the John Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Wine Service.

To even be considered for what Rand refers to as "one of the pinnacles of being in the business," a restaurant must display and encourage excellence in wine service through a well-presented wine list, a knowledgeable staff and efforts to educate customers about wine. Candidates also must have been in operation for at least five years and have to be nominated by several people.

"They kind of pair it down from there and then they go and visit your establishment," Rand said. "The further they get the process down, the more often they visit. I know they've been here once for sure."

While the 2008 award winner, Eleven Madison Park in New York City, is not on the top 20 list this year, the previous second- through fifth-place finishers - Acquerello in San Francisco, Bin 36 in Chicago, Blackberry Farm in Walland, TN and Picasso in Las Vegas - are.

Rand said Archie's Waeside has never been a candidate for the award, but as with the "Great American Steakhouse Challenge," he feels fortunate just to be considered.

"It's an honor just to be nominated with the other restaurants that are on there," he said.

Archie's Waeside was originally opened by current owner Bob Rand's grandfather, Archie Jackson, in 1949.

But, the concept of the LeMars based restaurant, which marks its 60th anniversary this year, goes back a little further in history.

Going back three generations in Jackson's history, before his family immigrated to the United States from Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, they were involved in the cattle business. After they came to the United States, they began running a kill floor in Chicago.

"When Sioux City became home of the largest stockyards, a lot of people from Chicago came over to Sioux City," Rand said. "My grandfather always wanted to take individual steaks and open a restaurant, so he looked around the area and liked LeMars."

Jackson owned the restaurant until 1973, when Rand's mother, Valerie, took over the business. Rand has owned the restaurant since 1994.

But why did he decide to go into the family business?

"It's kind of interesting," he said. "I have four siblings, and they all have different career paths across the country, and mine just seemed to be that I was in love with this place when I was a child. I don't think that I thought I was going to do anything else but this. The exciting thing for me is, I'm very fortunate to do what I love. I can't wait for the front door to open every night to see what's going to happen."

This article appeared in the April 2009 edition of Okoboji Magazine.

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