Western-style roadhouse restaurant, Dude’s Steakhouse, has been serving Sidney for 65 years

January 25, 2018

SIDNEY — If Dude’s Steakhouse didn’t exist, Hollywood would be tempted to invent it: A classic Western-style roadhouse along America’s first transcontinental highway, with a bar on one side and restaurant on the other. Neon signs weathered by decades of Nebraska winters, with a cowboy in chaps and vest peering down on the Brandin’ Iron Bar and a Nebraska beef astride the steakhouse, painted Hereford brown on one side and Angus black on the other. Inside, a dance hall, keno parlor and bar, with abundant longhorns poking out from the decor, overlooking old-school shuffleboard and pool tables.

Located at the west end of Sidney’s downtown, Dude’s hasn’t changed much since it was founded in 1952 by Dude and Florence Jelinek. Dude started the place as the Brandin’ Iron and added the steakhouse a decade later, renovating a former lumberyard and feeding customers homegrown beef from his ranch outside of town.

“He owned a lot of cattle and had a lot of fields. They would bring their own cattle in here and cut it up. They had their own butcher,” said Joey Gorman, a third-generation family member who speaks fondly of his grandfather. “We celebrated our 65th year in November.”

Joey’s mother, Patty Gorman, is Dude and Florence’s daughter. The restaurant opened on her birthday when she turned 12. Her husband Larry, daughter Jenni, and Joey and his wife Sarah are co-owners, carrying on traditions established during one of Sidney’s boom times, when thousands of soldiers and civilians worked at the Sioux Army Depot, an ammunition storage facility covering 20,000 acres north of town.

Western silhouettes in cut-steel surround the bar. Paintings and prints by western artists hang spotlighted above the booths. A farmer from nearby Chappell, Aaron Pyle, painted a mural on the wall for a couple of bottles of bourbon, depicting pioneers greeting Native Americans. Local ranchers burned their brands into the pine paneling surrounding it.

Pyle had studied with renowned regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton and went on to create distinctive paintings of Nebraska life and landscapes that sell today, more than 45 years after his death, for thousands of dollars. It’s one of only a handful of his paintings outside of museums and private collections.

“He got famous after he died,” Joey Gorman said. “People come in and look for it, fans of his work. My grandfather’s brand is right behind there. It’s important to longtime families around here.”

Dude and Florence would cater banquets of up to 350 diners. Soldiers, cowboys, oil riggers and train men would twirl their dates on the dance floor on weekend nights, until the depot shut down in the mid-1960s. By then, Cabela’s was taking root as one of the nation’s premier outdoor outfitters. The heavy cross-country traffic had moved out to Interstate 80, and things slowed down a bit.

“We were becoming more of a corporate town, and you didn’t have the melting pot of soldiers, oil riggers and cowboys,” Joey said.

In 1978, the USDA began requiring inspection of homegrown meat, and it became too pricey to serve beef fresh off the ranch. Today’s steaks come from premier regional sources such as Gold Canyon and Emerald Valley.

“It’s top-shelf meat. We don’t sell anything less than that,” said Joey, who oversees the kitchen.

Not much else has changed. There’s simple bar fare, including sandwiches and burgers. In the steakhouse you can order a petite filet, a slab of prime rib or barbecued beef ribs, as well as an assortment of seafood. Beef is served with a mushroom-based au jus, and the family takes pride in its homemade salad dressings.

“We make everything in house from scratch,” Joey said.

The complex employs about 35 people, some of whom have been with Dude’s for 40 years.

“They treat us right and we treat them right, and they’ve kept us going,” he said.

The banquet room can still serve more than 100 guests. You can play keno while enjoying a drink or meal. On Friday nights, the dance floor is busy, with a DJ or live band providing music.

“It gives people a chance to dance and socialize,” he said.

Located a few miles from Interstate 80, the restaurant doesn’t have to rely on drive-up traffic, although it’s well-regarded by fans of the old Lincoln Highway, the century-old ribbon of asphalt a few miles north of the interstate that still serves as Sidney’s main street.

“Our signs are well-known to the Lincoln Highway folks,” he said. “When they had their 100th anniversary we had about 90 people come in.”

Local hotels and Cabela’s staff will often refer visitors to the restaurant. But it’s the local traffic that’s kept the place going through the years.

“We rely on the locals. That’s why we’re still here — and the great food,” he said. “A lot of families we see three or four times a week. The grandparents come in here, the kids. We’re so lucky to have them.”

Following the recent sale of Cabela’s to Bass Pro Shops, jobs will be lost from the corporate headquarters offices, although the flagship retail store and some other local operations are expected to remain. Expected change in Sidney’s economy has cast a pall of uncertainty over the business community. But during its storied history, Sidney’s been a cavalry outpost, a hangout for Wild West cowboys and gamblers, a railroad town, oil town and military town. It isn’t the first time the city — or Dude’s — has had to adapt to change.

“We’ve got our belts tightened,” Joey said. “We’ve seen a lot of things come and go, and we’re still here. Our family’s been though the ups and downs for 65 years. Now it’s our generation’s turn to keep it going.”