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.”
Those lines have been running for years now thanks to word-of-mouth and a segment on “Discover Oklahoma.” Eventually, Steak and Catfish's success drew the attention of producers from the Travel Channel's “Man v. Food.”
The Adam Richman dog-and-pony show arrived to shoot The Steak and Catfish Barn in 2010, and what was already an enormous success became a phenomenon.
“We already did a great business before the show aired,” Smalley said. “But after that, it's been incredible.”
He said the appearance on the show has been the gift that keeps on giving.
“We can always tell when our episode airs again,” Smalley said. “We get a huge spike in Web hits on our website, and the lines get even longer.”
All that interest now will benefit Bob and Margie Warner, who leased a spot that once was competition to the Steak and Catfish Barn's first incarnation. The new space was formerly the home of Papa's Lil Italy.
“It's funny, when we first opened as Maria's Italian, Papa's Lil Italy — which was a great place to eat — was kind of like competition for us, and now we're opening up in their old place,” Smalley said.
(By the way, I have it on good authority that former Papa's Lil Italy owner Candace Gideo has a new concept she plans to roll out in the very near future.)
The new space increases capacity from 90 to 150. The parking situation is improved, and it is considerably closer to potential diners.
Smalley and Vitale can be seen working the kitchen and the counter through the end of the month. They've been side-by-side with the Warners, decorating the restaurant, training kitchen staff and welcoming back many of the staff from up the highway.
The sale of the business hasn't changed Smalley and Vitale's plans to move to her hometown in Italy in early March.
When I talked to them in August, Smalley said, “We've had a house there for a number of years. I don't know why, every time we go there we just sleep the whole time.”
But there will be no sleep in the near future as the couple plan to open Dino and Maria's Trattoria once they get established.
“It'll just be open Thursday, Friday and Saturday,” Smalley said.
“We'll train my cousins how to operate it and let them run it,” Vitale said with a laugh.
Vitale said they will also feature all-you-can-eat catfish. “They don't know about the catfish in Italy,” she said.
But here in Oklahoma City, we know catfish intimately, from fish fries to noodling tournaments. Warner said response has been overwhelming in the short time since the restaurant reopened in the new place.
“I bet I've had five or six gentlemen come up and shake my hand, tell me they were glad we were carrying this on,” Warner said.
If you go
The Steak and Catfish Barn, 10603 N Interstate 35 Service Road, is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. For more information or to view the menu, go online to steakandcatfishbarn.com, or call 475-0227.