Beyond the small town of Keyport, Whiskey Creek Steakhouse may have been best known for its geriatric jazz combo, featuring a 75-year-old pianist, an 89-year-old bassist, and a 90-year-old trumpeter. But owners Pat and Karen Ziarnik last month axed the twice-a-week act on the advice of a Restaurant: Impossible production team.
"They strongly suggested we cancel it," Pat Ziarnik says. "We're saving $33,000 a year and, you know, nobody said a word. It used to be you couldn't have a conversation over dinner because it was too loud in here."
Now the only noise is generated by the hoards of diners anxious to assess the Food Network show's handiwork. "We doubled business in one day," Ziarnik reports.
Live music wasn't the only casualty of the makeover, which will be featured in a Jan. 2 broadcast. The team charged with rescuing the failing steakhouse on a $10,000 budget and two-day timetable trimmed the menu from 44 items to 22. They also did away with inclusive steak dinners.
"They said 'if they want a salad, let them buy it'," says Ziarnik, who told the North Kitsap Herald that his restaurant's income had dropped by 48 percent over the last five years.
"I'm 61 years old, and this is the worst I've ever seen in my entire life," Ziarnik said when I interviewed him this spring for a story about the region's rural steakhouses. But the following month, Restaurant: Impossible returned a two-year old message from the struggling couple: The restaurant celebrated its grand re-opening on Sept. 29.
"They wouldn't let us peek at the menu until Saturday night," Ziarnik says. "It was very difficult to deal with. You have no input at all."
Still, Ziarnik says he's extremely pleased with the results. Although a few longtime customers chafed at the a la carte prime rib pricing, the restaurant's had to hire three new cooks to keep up with demand.
By the show's terms, Whiskey Creek was obliged only to keep the changes intact for filming, but the Ziarniks have largely maintained the restaurant as host Robert Irvine and his crew left it. They haven't added any frills to the stripped-down ranch décor, which Ziarnik describes as "more contemporary, more fresh."
"I'll use the phrase 'Texas chic'," he says.
But the menu's been subjected to slightly more tinkering. As Ziarnik points out, independent restaurant owners are frequently too busy to keep track of trends. The Restaurant: Impossible team, hobbled by no such strictures, swooped in with "sea salt-dusted pommes frites", filet sliders and braised short ribs with blueberry barbecue sauce. Yet not every new dish was a good financial or aesthetic fit for the restaurant, Ziarnik says.
Whiskey Creek also pulled an oyster bisque, replacing it with seafood stew, and rewrote perhaps the most interesting appetizer on the revised menu.
"The halibut cheeks were fantastic, but there's only two cheeks on a halibut and the season's over," Ziarnik says. The dish, loosely modeled after the coconut shrimp preparation popularized by Red Lobster, is now made with a more affordable halibut filet.
Although the swirl of publicity surrounding the makeover helped boost business, Ziarnik anticipates even bigger crowds after the show airs.
"You know, it's absolutely fantastic," Ziarnik says.