The Steak and Catfish Barn has risen from the dead, and it's breathed life into a space that hasn't seen many guests since the 1990s.
Dino Smalley and his wife, Maria Vitale, helped new owners Bob and Margie Warner reboot the concept last week in the roadside building where Papa's Lil Italy once enjoyed huge crowds at 10603 N Interstate 35 Service Road.
Back on Aug. 31, Smalley and Vitale closed their Steak and Catfish Barn a few miles north at I-35 and Waterloo Road after a 15-year run.
The 90-seat shack, made legendary by a visit from Adam Richman's “Man v. Food” in 2010, closed despite serving full dining rooms any time the doors were open for business. The long-term lease they had signed ran out, and Smalley and Vitale had grown weary of the incredible tax the business took on their time.
They were all set to retire to a home they own in Sellia, Calabria, Italy, but one of their regular customers, Bob Warner, insisted on talking about buying the business.
“I kept asking to talk to him,” Warner said. “But he kept putting me off. Finally, after the third time, he said, ‘I'll talk to you later.'”
“I didn't even return his call,” Smalley said. “But he was so persistent. I told him to go find a building; he went and found a building. Everything I did to put him off wouldn't slow him down.”
What Smalley didn't anticipate was the strength of Warner's entrepreneurial spirit. Warner, 79, has run construction outfits, an insulation business, been a preacher/missionary and got his college degree after the age of 30. He also owned a doughnut shop and diner at one point.
“I'd been going out there for a number of years,” Warner said. “I just didn't think it was right for people not to get to continue to eat there as popular as it was.”
The Warners take over a business that got off to a slow start back in 1998 when Smalley and Vitale signed a 15-year lease on a ramshackle restaurant space located in what at the time was a no man's land — a risky move for the couple who wanted to share the flavors of Maria's homeland, Italy.
“I moved to this country when I was 21, and lived in New Jersey for 20 years,” Vitale said. “I moved here 25 years ago because this is where Dino is from.”
Secrets of success
The couple originally opened an Italian restaurant in the space but changed seven years later in an effort to boost lunch service by drawing the construction crews that built the many homes that stand nearby today.
While the couple was mulling over the change from Italian to steak and catfish, a chance conversation with a stranger at Gulfport Seafood pointed Smalley in the direction of the secret ingredient that led to the batter that saved their bacon.
Perhaps the most important part of the purchase Warner made from Smalley and Vitale was the recipe for that batter, but what interested him most was the crowds of people that lined up out the door day and night.
“I came out here back in August, 95 degrees outside, and 35 to 40 people were lined up out the door to get that catfish,” Warner said. “I just saw it as too good an opportunity to pass up.”
Asked what changes he and his wife had in store, Warner answered swiftly, “We're not changing a thing other than the location.”