Winchester’s Grill and Saloon
632 E. Main St., Ventura
For 20 years Winchester’s Grill and Saloon in Downtown Ventura has managed to hold on while eateries around it (notably Chicago for Ribs, Fuji Sushi and the short-lived Ragsdale) have come and gone. That’s a feat worth celebrating, and judging from the crowds at the restaurant’s weekend-long anniversary festivities in late April, locals agree. While the live bands and cornhole tournament were a nice touch, however, not everyone was there for the music and games: Plenty of people were saddling up for some of Winchester’s food and drink.
As the name implies, the restaurant takes its cue from the Old West, with lots of wood, brass and stained glass inside, and a fine mahogany bar that begs visitors to belly up. The menu follows suit. While there are a few nods to vegetarians (a portobello mushroom burger and a veggie wrap, for example) the selection definitely favors carnivores. But there are some surprises. Lamb bacon on the BLT and venison-stuffed mushrooms are an intriguing walk on the wild side in a menu that largely features steaks, burgers, grilled chicken and pork chops.
And like any good grill, the restaurant knows its way around a hunk o’ meat. The flat-iron steak my dining partner ordered was a beautiful cut of beef, dark brown and just a touch crusty on the outside with a juicy, slightly pink middle — and surprisingly tender for a cut that can sometimes be a bit chewy. High marks for the earthy, flavorful range beans, too — “famous” for a reason, with ample spice and lots of corn and peppers.
I tried the pulled-pork sandwich, loaded with buttery-soft shredded pork shoulder on a fresh kaiser roll. The bourbon-infused barbecue sauce is a Winchester’s recipe, more tangy than sweet, and a bit chunky. It married well with the succulent pork. The plate came loaded with lots of crispy french fries, making for a very filling meal.
Just for kicks, we also ordered a small side of vegetarian chili, made with Deschutes Black Butte Porter. It was a little spicy, and the chef wasn’t shy with the cumin. Overall I considered it a good effort. Lots of texture and character, great depth and fantastic on my fries. Next time I might give the tri-tip version a shot — and maybe try something off the small-plates menu, because the portions at Winchester’s are pretty big.
The list of burgers is tempting indeed. The 50-50, which includes bacon ground up with the chuck, and the Kerby, a combination of ground turkey, hot0wing sauce and bleu cheese, sounded especially appealing. The burger we eventually ended up with (courtesy of Kid #1) was a plain-Jane version, but it was juicy, tender and delicious, and served on a soft roll that was far superior to the standard-issue sesame-seed bun. Kid #2 had a hot dog, which is advertised as being made from Wagyu Kobe beef, prized for its marbling and intense, rich flavor. The finer points of beef production were lost on an 8-year -old, but I have to admit: That was one tasty dog.
As far as the saloon aspect — Winchester’s is as reliable with a drink as it is with a steak. We had the Ventucky, the house Old Fashioned, and it was quite good. As for the brews list — quite respectable. From the many different options available on tap — and the list is quite comprehensive, with plenty of browns, porters, lagers, wheats and ciders in addition to the IPAs — we ended up with a mildly hoppy session IPA that turned out to be a great way to wash down salty fries on a hot day.
All in all, our afternoon lunch showed us just what has allowed Winchester’s to stand the test of time. Good, solid food — with a few unconventional recipes to keep things interesting. Fast, friendly service. (Even with a packed house we never felt neglected.) A bartender as deft with the classics as with the crafty, and an impressive beer selection (with, I might note, very reasonable prices during happy hour). When you’ve been in the saddle for 20 years, I guess you learn a thing or two.