The Buckhorn keeps steaks big, brazen and with the old breed

The Buckhorn Steakhouse in Winters. Photo by Scott Thomas Anderson

Fourteen miles past Davis is the rancher’s answer to perfect meat cut off the hoof 

Sun falls on the red, sky-beaten bricks of the DeVilbiss Hotel. With health restrictions easing, people can finally stroll through the 140-year-old landmark again, the longtime home of the original Buckhorn Steakhouse – a meat-eater’s icon that keeps luring greedy appetites to west Yolo County.

Those who spend time in Winters often enjoy the rustic hamlet’s smattering of coffee houses, wine bars and microbreweries, but for many, it’s the Buckhorn that is the main event. The old hotel’s glass candles and ranch-style chandeliers feel transporting, and its worn Victorian ballroom makes for a cornerstone cookery filled with dark, dripping beef juice.

That’s what butcher John Pickerel envisioned when he founded the place nearly four decades ago. To make it happen, he restored the run-down DeVilbiss and tailored its steakhouse to honor Winters’ early roughneck spirit. Customers sit beneath Elk, antelope and ram heads staring from aged crimson stone. A cougar’s pelt is stretched like a flag over the silver beer taps. The snarling face of a warthog seems to watch the waiters bustling in and out of the kitchen.

This is where carnivores come when they’re hunting something truly formidable.

But before any of that starts, there’s the appetizers. A popular selection is the grilled artichoke, which the Buckhorn serves split and paired with garlic and lemon aioli. The handmade dip it comes with has a briny center that’s with alive with herb pinches, adding some tight, tasty accents to the peppered and blackened artichoke leaves.

After that, it’s time for something hearty. No one goes wrong with the ribeye steak, which is 24 ounces of certified Angus beef served ruby-centered, supple and gloriously marbled in succulent, fat-frying juices. It’s beautifully old school. And for real paleo indulgers, the Buckhorn will dare to do “rare” to perfection, all coupled with a slathering of garlic mashed potatoes for that salt-licked, blood-soaked bonus.  

Another great offering from the Buckhorn is its thick slabs of tremendously soft tri tip. They’re served with smoke-choked barbecue sauce and creamy horseradish that can spark a brilliantly addictive fire in one’s forehead. The tri tip’s manic moisture is paired with fried onion strings to mop up those seared, sweaty juices exploding with each bite.

The tri tip and ribeye both go well with Buckhorn’s signature red wine on barrel tap. For years the steakhouse has worked with Yolo County vintners to get a bold, robust blend that’s affordable and genuinely local. Known as the Buckhorn Red, it allows “the vine of life” to collided with the highest craft of the slaughter house.

On Friday and Saturday nights, there’s another big reason to make the drive to Winters. A really big reason. It’s a monster lurking in the Buckhorn’s kitchen – a health-hating legend that’s come to be known as “The Tomahawk.”  This fat, 44-ounce rib-eye comes out with a long bone like an ax handle. It’s a sight so commanding that it has to be wheeled around rollers and carved at the tableside. It’s all brawn and dribbling danger. It’s a nod to the most instinctual fireside cravings of the Cro-Magnon.

Pickerel has said there’s really no secret to the Buckhorn’s appeal: It uses top quality steaks that are aged up to 60 days and still cut with a band saw. The place hires good meat-cutters and broilers, and then gets them to stay for long periods. Its whole team works toward offering big cuts that are always tender, flavorful and juicy. And everyone at the Buckhorn understands that consistency is key.

At the moment, there are a lot of great restaurants that are starting to fully re-open across the region. Yet the Buckhorn – this place that knows the meaning of “rare” – is truly one of the rarest.

Scott Thomas Anderson is also the host of the ‘Drinkers with Writing Problems’ podcast.

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