Never in my life have I faced such a slab of beef all by myself! Between 28-32 boneless ounces, this is a steak to feed a family, maybe even a scout troop—but here it rests before me, a picture of fragrant, juicy glory. It dwarfs the foil-robed baked potato. I slice through the gleaming bark: pink perfection. South of Bend by 90 minutes of pine forest, sage brush, and huge wide-open western skies, the Cowboy Dinner Tree is a carnivore’s dream journey into the Old West. A collection of weathered low-ceilinged shacks and log cabins encloses rustic wooden tables and benches. The walls are haphazardly appointed with cowboy gear—horse-tack, hats, tools of barn and chuck wagon—and dollar bills are everywhere, tucked into cracks or skillfully origami’d and placed on windowsills, to be gathered annually and donated to a veteran’s organization.
The wise diner brings a cooler, even a container or two, to get every ounce of goodness out of the family-style meals. After drink orders are placed—water, pink lemonade or coffee—salad arrives, in a humble plastic bowl with a squeeze bottle each of house-made honey mustard and ranch dressings. Nope, it’s not iceberg—it’s a blend of greens sparked with red cabbage, carrots and herbs. Then a choice of two soups—we got the rich, thick and creamy chicken chowder, studded with corn and potatoes. With this arrives a pie pan of steaming, tender, irresistible pull-apart rolls and a scoop of butter—bigger than an ice cream serving at some of those fancy-pants Portland scoop shops. Plenty of food already, and the main course is yet to come.When you place your reservation, you decide: steak or chicken. The close-to-two-pound monstrosity/delight of top sirloin, grilled to medium rare in an enormous lidded cooker out back, or a whole rotisserie chicken. Our steaks fed us each for three days! Along with the meat comes a baked potato of ordinary size, accompanied by a surprisingly modest—but adequate—spoonful of sour cream. Plastic bags are provided for leftovers. By happy accident we had an empty pint tub in the car, and enjoyed cold chicken chowder for breakfast. Dessert was tasty, simple and comfortingly manageable in size: a small square of white cake scattered with berries and soaked in cream.While the food is worth the trip, the real magic is in the ambience, the incredible remote setting, and the people. It’s friendly, down-home, and authentically rustic like I’ve never seen a restaurant in the United States. As a cook, I couldn’t resist a peek into the kitchen. Yup, rustic there, too! Another old-fashioned attribute—the Cowboy Dinner Tree is cash only, and in the middle of nowhere, so bring it!
The lore is that the large juniper tree on the property used to shelter chuck wagons which fed cowboys on cattle drives from nearby Silver Lake to the Sycan Marsh. The buildings are a relic of a 19th century homestead, and became a restaurant in 1992. Current owners Angel and Jamie Roscoe took over the property from Angel’s mother in 2012.
There’s a funky gift shop and benches to linger on outside while either salivating over the grilling meat or digesting, plenty of parking for RVs, and even a couple of guest cabins to spend the night. Or drive another hour and stay at the wonderful Summer Lake Hot Springs, where a long soak in hot mineral water will whet the appetite for a cowboy breakfast of hearty leftovers.