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Old West Rules Food and Fun for Half-Century

People from around the Globe hear the word “Texan” and they automatically think “Big.”

That’s what the Lone Star State is about, and when you couple the biggest and the best with a history that is only a couple of generations removed from the wild days of the West when cattle covered the prairie and cowboys were the stuff of legend, you find folks hankering for a big taste of those yesterdays. The Big Texan Steak Ranch has become a landmark and a legend in its own right, because it has a longstanding history of serving up the biggest and the best of what travelers want to find in Texas.

They trek across Interstate 40 from east and west, knowing that they’ll encounter a 120-mile stretch of the nation’s largest contiguous state. It will take them two hours to get a glimpse of what makes Texas famous, instead of the two days that would be required via any other route. And sitting just about in the middle of that stretch, in Amarillo, is the world famous Big Texan Steak Ranch.

Ranch is an important word in Texas, and it implies an impressive spread and sprawl. It quickly conjures images of tender beef, hands dedicated to the Brand, and a sizeable helping of hospitality for any random visitors who might venture through the front gate.

That’s exactly what founder R.J. “Bob” Lee set out to create when he left the civilized world of the Midwest and set out to find his fortune in Texas.

Lee grew up on the lore of the Old West and with his wife, MaryAnn, and a young family he was prepared to find – or make – adventure along the way. A solid history in food service, including family ties to the famed four-star Savoy Grill in Kansas City, was the impetus that sent him in search of a good steak house when he got to Amarillo. He was disappointed at the lack of a quality establishment, so he set about creating his own.

The Big Texan was a family affair from the very beginning. Mary Ann worked in the original restaurant on Old Route 66 alongside her husband. Their eight children, as they came of age, joined the enterprise.

Bob was enamored with Texas and all things Texan. And he was smart enough to know that other people from across the country and around the world felt the same way. He quickly began using billboards to let travelers know about the good food and unique atmosphere that could be found at the Big Texan Steak Ranch. A lanky cowboy soon loomed above the unique architecture of the building. A mounted horseman sitting out by the highway and waving to children of all ages offered further incentives for road-weary parents and globe-trotting travelers to turn off the Mother Road and into the restaurant. Modern day travelers still see Big Texan Billboards east and west of Amarillo on Interstate 40 and on the major north and south routes through the Panhandle. They have become an integral part of the legend, and countless children practiced their long-division by dividing 72 ounces into four and a half pounds.

But while Bob was rounding up travelers, he didn’t for a minute overlook the local ranch hands, cowboys and characters whose work and lives he was turning into a legend.  Cowboys from across the area came to the Big Texan for a good steak, and Bob had noticed more than once that everyone enjoyed the friendly carnivorous competition between the cowboys. One Friday night, Bob pulled the local guys together to see who could eat the most. He charged them five dollars apiece to participate with the pot awarded to the winner at the end of the contest. The rules were simple: don’t leave the table until you’re finished, and if you lost your dinner you lost the contest.

 After quickly devouring a couple of steaks, one hungry hand asked for a salad and a shrimp cocktail. A couple of steaks later, he asked for a baked potato and a dinner roll. After eating those sides, he asked for his fifth, one-pound steak. When the cowboy finished, he had consumed 72-oz. of good Texas beef along with the rest of the dinner. Bob vowed that night that anyone else who could match that limit would get his or her dinner free, if they could do it within the one-hour time limit.

Times changed quickly and by 1970 a new interstate highway was muscling the Mother Road toward an unwelcome and early rocking chair. Bob had the vision to see the transition and invested in property along the new super highway where a new Big Texan Steak Ranch and Mercantile was eventually constructed in its present day location. The giant cowboy, a travel icon, flew by helicopter from the old location to the new one, where he continues to attract the attention of travelers of all ages.

Today, the Big Texan Steak Ranch spreads itself alongside Interstate 40, along with a motel that features a Texas-shaped swimming pool and comfortable accommodations for the horses that travel the prairies more often in fancy trailers these days than on their hoofed feet. A gift shop, candy store, micro-brewery and room for private parties can also be found at the most famous Ranch in the Texas Panhandle.

The key to the Big Texan’s success is that it is continually evolving while it still provides visitors with a taste and a touch of the Texas they long to see, touch, hear and taste. When you walked through the doors today, you became a part of a living legend.