In a world of chain restaurants and drive-thru convenience, it is often worth a relaxing trip down a two lane Mississippi highway to find a first class dining experience.
Pete Atkinson opened Atkinson Steak House in 1998 and since then, he has developed a reputation with locals as providing the best food anywhere around. He perfected his own signature steak sauce, and customers spend $4 per bottle to keep it stocked in their own refrigerators. One customer said, “I won’t grill my own steak without having Pete’s sauce to go with it.”
What began as a small 12×48′ restaurant has grown in size to accommodate ninety six diners at once, which seems like a lot considering Smithville’s small population. The wood paneled walls have no ornamentation, but a mantel in the front of the dining room holds precious Atkinson family pictures. Sweet and unsweetened tea are brought in plastic cups along with a decanter full for the table. They also have a private dining room with seating for twelve for private parties. Pete and his wife Norma live on the property, and the wooden buildings have a quaint, homey appeal.
“We have our regulars, and when they can’t dine with us, they call in orders for our Barn Box,” Pete’s daughter and co-owner Kitty Poole explains. “People love the Barn Box. They can get chicken, fish, or a combination of the two. If they bring a jug from home, we will fill it with a gallon of sweet tea for them.” Before the doors open at 5PM, at least a half dozen Barn Box orders are ready for pick up.
When a customer orders a filet, T-Bone, New York strip, or ribeye, Pete cuts the meat right on the spot. The filets are carefully wrapped with peppered bacon and grilled to absolute perfection. Each one is plated with a ramequin of horseradish and au jus, which is by no means necessary to enjoy an Atkinson steak but sends the flavor over the top. On a typical Friday night, Pete will cut over 100 steaks by hand. Kitty takes time and grinds the lean steak trimmings for their signature hamburger steak, which can be ordered plain or mothered with grilled onions and gravy.
Atkinson doesn’t stop with fresh cut meat. Salad dressings are all made by hand daily, and their Thousand Island is the most requested. According to Kitty, she spends five or six hours each day taking care of food preparations.
Fried fish is offered, but Atkinson specializes in shrimp and oysters. They are hand battered from scratch and are available sauteed as a lighter option. The tartar and cocktail sauces are homemade. Every night, thirty pounds of hushpuppy batter is deep fried golden brown.
Each dinner is served with salad or a choice of gumbo or chili. Fresh vegetables accented by their homemade dressings are served in a small wooden salad bowl with crackers. The chili was originally a winter-only option, but became so popular with customers, Kitty had to keep it on the menu. “It was summer, and people were asking where the chili was!”
By far, the most unique option on the menu are grilled chicken livers wrapped in bacon. “Normally they are fried, but we decided to be a little different.” They are available in quantities of six of twelve for a dinner portion and are also available as an appetizer.
The dessert menu is very limited, but that has no bearing on what is actually offered. Smithville resident Jerry Stanford bakes cakes every week for the restaurant, the most popular flavors being coconut and Butterfinger.
When Smithville was devastated by an EF5 tornado in April of 2011, the staff at Atkinson was doing kitchen prep for the evening. Kitty’s son called to warn her of the approaching storm. “I looked outside, and I could see it coming just north of the restaurant. All I could say was ‘Thank you, God. Thank you, God.’ It was so close. I knew people were killed.”
The steakhouse lost power that night but were open for business the following day to feed Smithville residents and volunteers from the surrounding area. “Luckily, our business was fine. We just lost power for a day. So many people were effected by it.” They carried on with business to help their friends and neighbors regain a sense of normalcy.
Every resident of north Mississippi should visit Atkinson Steak House once in their dining life. They are open Thursday-Sunday nights from 5-10PM, and their incredibly friendly staff alone makes it worth the trip.
Story by Emily Gatlin // Photos by Alex Gilbert