Today is Friday, October 20, 2017

Steak on the Lake

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From left, Ron and Janna Chambers of Cookeville, Abbie and Mary Lee Carrigan of Hendersonville, and Carol and Jerry Joyner of Cookeville dined on steaks and seafood on a recent Friday night at the Cherokee Steak House. Carol said about her sirloin steak, “It was delicious, tender, seasoned just right, wonderful. I wish I’d ordered a larger one.”
Cherokee Steak House manager Keith Cunningham shows off the restaurant’s Surf N Turf plate that features a seven-ounce filet and a lobster tail. Sitting on the shores of Old Hickory Lake, the restaurant, nicknamed “the steak house of the Middle South,” opened in 1958 and has been operated by the Cunningham family for the past 45 years. KEN BECK
The Cunningham family has operated the Cherokee Steak House & Marina beside Old Hickory Lake for the past 45 years. From left are Chris, Wanda, Bill and Keith Cunningham. Submitted

For meat-eaters who've got a craving for such cuts as rib eye, prime rib, porter house, T-bone, New York strip or beef tenderloin, you may wish to stake your claim (or claim your steak) at the Cherokee Steak House.

The restaurant, which is approaching its 60th anniversary, sits on Old Hickory Lake just south of Gallatin off Highway 109 inside of Wilson County.

The Bill Cunningham family has operated the establishment for 45 years.

His son, Keith, who has been the restaurant manager since 1988 said, "It's just a great place and atmosphere, and we're noted for our steaks. We do have good seafood products. We have lobster, shrimp, fish, pork and chicken. There's a wide variety on our menu.

"Dad is semiretired, and he still comes in and makes sure we're doing our job. My sister, Wanda Roark, is the office manager and oversees the RV park, and my brother, Chris, oversees the marina."

Getting down to the business of steak, he said, "Prime rib is our best seller. We cut our beef ourselves. We get loins out of the heart of the Midwest, all corn-fed beef. We age it ourselves."

So, what exactly goes into making a great steak?

"First off, you've got to have the proper amount of age. Without giving any secrets away, at least a month," Keith said. "You won't find a meat company or distributor that will give an expiration date on any beef. All they do is give you the package date on there.

"It takes the property seasoning and the right cooking technique. Your temperature is important. We have some special grills, drawer grills, that cook so you get flame from the top and flame from the bottom. So when you put it on the grill, it sears that flavor in from the top and the bottom."

On a busy Friday evening, the restaurant is abuzz and packed with tables seating from two to four to six to 12 diners. The place seats 300, but that doesn't mean there may not be a wait.

Claiming to be "the steak house of the Middle South," the restaurant has a motto, "You can whip our cream but you can't beat our meat."

Among some of the dishes on the menu is the Surf N Turf, a seven-ounce filet and a lobster tail, $17.95; the Captain's Choice reef and beef which includes fried shrimp and sirloin steak, $17.95;

a seven-ounce sirloin, $11.95; and a 12-ounce sirloin, $16.95. All entrees are served with salad, sour dough rolls, and a choice of baked potato, fries, rice, vegetable medley or broccoli.

Desserts include key lime pie, Tennessee cherry swirl cheesecake and chocolate fudge pie.

Steak house patriarch Bill Cunningham and silent partners purchased the restaurant in 1972.

"Daddy used to sell meat to Larry Myers. Myers and his wife, Lil, were the second owners in the 1960s. The restaurant was opened in 1958 by the Gray family," said Keith, sharing the lineage of the restaurant's ownership.

Keith and his sister reside in Gallatin, while his father and brother live in Wilson County, but their roots are in Trousdale County.

"I started at the age of 9, washing dishes," said Keith. "We've done it all our life. Dad owned Bilbo's Restaurant, a diner in Hartsville. That's one of the steak names on the menu, The Bilbo, a club steak."

Among the patrons on a recent night were Warren and Shelley Lesco, who said they eat here about six times a year.

"We both work in Gallatin and live in Lebanon so this is real easy for us to stop by," said Warren, who was polishing off a cobb salad. "I usually order some type of steak. We've never had a bad meal. The service is always great and the staff is friendly."

Brittnie and Joe Hale of Mt. Juliet and their daughters, Destynie, Paisley and Skyler ordered steak for two.

"I love it," said Joe said of the main dish.

"Great flavor," added Brittnie. "I've been coming here for 25 years for the food, but for the memories too. My grandfather and I were very close, and he had his birthday on March 25 and mine was March 20. We would always come here and sit at the middle table and have our joint birthday parties here."

The restaurant has grown over the years. Keith said they increased its size in 1986, and the marina, which originally had 50 slips, now has 150 to 160.

For diners who come by boat it is but a 75- to-100-yard stroll to the front door. Keith said that about 10 percent of their customers come by water, and some nights it may be as many as 30 percent.

"We draw people from about 75 to 100 miles out. They come from out of Kentucky and the other side of Nashville, mostly by word of mouth," he said.

As for a few of the celebrities they have served, yes, country music star Reba McIntire, who lived across the road until recently, ate there. Gretchen Wilson, Charlie Daniels, Tanya Tucker, Evel Knievel, Robert Redford and "Dukes of Hazzard" co-stars John Schneider and Tom Wopat have been customers at the steak house on the lake.

Keith said, "You cannot do this without a great staff, and over the years I've had a great staff.

I've had people stay with me over 30 years. Probably seven to eight stayed 30 years."

Over the decades, they've had a myriad of loyal customers as well, gourmets who know they can have their steak and eat it too.

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