John Pickerel came to Winters nearly 40 years ago when it was a worn-out farm town and opened an upscale restaurant called the Buckhorn Steakhouse.
It was a risky move, but Buckhorn eventually won widespread acclaim for its steaks, including its hallmark char-roasted tri-tip. It spawned a string of offshoots from San Francisco to New York City. And it led the transformation of Winters into a destination for wine, food and craft beer.
But that’s not what Pickerel likes to talk about. His passion, and the subject of much of his conversation, is meat, meat and more meat.
The child of ranchers who became a butcher, Pickerel realized early on that his best shot at success was ensuring a reliable supply of the best aged, marbled beef that would produce the tenderest, juiciest steaks.
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“I wanted that satisfying experience in a primordial manner,” Pickerel said. He sat in a modest office in Winters, wearing jeans and an open-necked shirt, his dusty Volkswagen parked outside.
Pickerel said the Buckhorn’s early years were focused on persuading patrons to make the 45-minute drive from Sacramento or farther for a steak.
“It was all about getting people to come here and exceeding their expectations,” said Pickerel, 63. “I found out if you give people good beef, they’ll drive for it.”
These days, not everyone has to drive to Winters for Buckhorn beef. They can walk to the Buckhorn Grill in midtown Sacramento or take the train to a similar restaurant in New York’s Grand Central Station or ride the bus to the Metreon center in downtown San Francisco.
But the heart of the Buckhorn universe remains Winters, a city of 7,000 residents on the banks of Putah Creek in western Yolo County. In the 1970s, the city saw its farming fortunes dry up and watched as car dealers and grocery stores left town. When Pickerel arrived, a third of the storefronts were vacant.
“Winters had really fallen on hard times,” Pickerel said.
Even so, he opened the Buckhorn in the dilapidated bar of a historic hotel at the corner of Main Street and Railroad Avenue in 1980. After a review in The Sacramento Bee noted the restaurant’s inconsistent offerings, Pickerel made it his mission to work with ranchers and buy and butcher his own beef, he said.
Gradually the Buckhorn’s reputation grew, and it became a regional destination, though Winters still struggled. The city’s fortunes started to change in the late 1990s and early 2000s as the farm-to-fork movement took hold, with Winters at its epicenter.
The Palms Playhouse, which had achieved fame as a music venue in a barn outside Davis, moved to the Victorian-era opera house in Winters. A family of local sisters opened a tapas spot called Ficelle. And number of wineries opened downtown tasting rooms.
Now a developer is building a boutique hotel in downtown Winters; Berryessa Brewing pours craft beer by the barrel; and the streets are filled on weekend nights with visitors who have read about Winters in Sunset magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.
Almost always, the Buckhorn, run by Pickerel and his wife Melanie Bajakian, is noted as the epicenter of the town’s renaissance and a key part of the Sacramento region’s burgeoning food scene. Pickerel said his formula for success has remained the same from the start.
“It’s really important to be authentic,” he said.
John Pickerel – Buckhorn Steakhouse
What’s so special: The char-roasted tri-tip, or “poor man’s prime rib,” is rubbed in a secret mixture and blackened by fire.
The local connection: The Winters-based Buckhorn Steakhouse. The Buckhorn empire continues to expand with restaurants in Northern California, New York and Ohio. Plans call for opening a Texas location.
Expectations: Steaks and other top-quality meats. Animal heads on the wall.
Quote: “I found out if you give people good beef, they’ll drive for it.”
John Pickerel, founder of Buckhorn Steakhouse