As New Year after New Year becomes last year and the year before, we begin to say goodbye more and more often. Those goodbyes are to friends and loved ones, things and places.
Recently, I said adios to a place — Zentner’s Daughter’s Steakhouse in San Angelo. (Note: Since they are out of business now, this does not constitute an advertisement. It is merely to lament the passage of yet another non-franchise, locally owned restaurant that offered good, reasonably priced meals.) The West Texas culinary landmark closed on December 31 after 45 years in business. But the restaurant’s story goes back much further.
It began with John Zentner, a blue-eyed, craggy-faced son of a German immigrant who made his living as a butcher. In 1918, Zentner was an enlisted man serving as a U.S. Cavalry cook in Oregon. After the conflict known as the Great War before it became World War One, Zentner flipped burgers at his father’s meat market. Later, he brought his cooking skills to the Lone Star State and eventually settled in the Concho Valley.
In 1946 Zentner opened the Lowake Inn, in the small town by that name just south of Rowena in Runnels County. Zentner also had a steakhouse in Rowena, which is where I became acquainted with him in 1967. As a younger reporter for the San Angelo Standard-Times, I liked to stop at his Rowena place for a steak and beer or two when headed back to San Angelo (or as we West Texans call it, “Angelo”) from a work-related road trip.
The first time I talked with Zentner was shortly after the movie “Bonnie and Clyde” came out. The biographical material on Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker that rolled after the bloody ending of the film noted that Bonnie had been born in Rowena. That seemed like a story to me, so I asked Zentner if he or anyone else around Rowena had known the woman who went on to become the nation’s most famous female outlaw.
Zentner said he had never met her, but that he knew someone in town who had gone with her briefly. He gave me the man’s name and phone number and I called him from the steakhouse. Given that his wife answered the phone and apparently continued to stand nearby as he talked with me, he had to speak somewhat circumspectively. But yes, he had romanced Bonnie at a dance in Rowena. So far as he knew, he said, he was the first guy who ever kissed her.
That wasn’t much, but by adding details on the career of the outlaw couple and connecting Rowena with the popular movie, it was enough to make a newspaper feature article. And allow me to put the meal on my expense account.
Zentner closed his Rowena place at some point after I left San Angelo and opened a steakhouse on Beauregard Street in San Angelo. I ate there every time I was in town until it closed.
Then, in 1974, Zentner and his daughter Betty opened a restaurant in a shopping center on Knickerbocker Road just across from the Angelo State University football field. Known as Zentner’s Daughter’s Steakhouse, it became my go-to West Texas steak place. Betty acquired full ownership of the restaurant in 1994, the year her father died at 94.
What I always ordered was their small filet mignon, which I think was the best in Texas. With that came a loaded baked potato, salad bar access and friendly service.
I’ll remember the good food I enjoyed there, but there are other memories: An enjoyable lunch with the late Western novelist Elmer Kelton and his wife when I interviewed him for a newspaper article; suppers with Felton Cochran, owner of San Angelo’s Cactus Book Store and with Suzanne Campbell, longtime director of the West Texas Collection at Angelo State University. And, of course, there were meals with family and other friends like San Angeloans Preston and Harriet Lewis.
Given the good food and all those memories, when I heard the steakhouse would be closing for good, I immediately started planning the 400-mile roundtrip to San Angelo from Wimberley for one more bacon-wrapped filet mignon. Some of my acquaintances thought it a bit excessive—ok, crazy—to spend seven or eight hours on the road just to eat a steak, but they’re folks who never had a meal at Zentner’s.
After I’d polished off that final filet the day before the restaurant’s last day in business, I jokingly asked Zentner’s granddaughter, Kim, if there was any way I could talk her into keeping the steakhouse open. No way, she said in so many words. But she offered hope to those of us who are not practicing vegetarians: “I’ll probably be opening another place in a year or two,” she said, “and my brother will probably be starting something in Stephenville.” Happily, while the family sold the restaurant fixtures and cutlery, they did not sell their brand name.