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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

A Cut Above

Evansville is a foodie city. While our city offers many opportunities for trying new dishes and types of food, many seek the comfort of classic dishes and favorites that never change.

For the patrons of Cork ‘N Cleaver, known simply as the Cork to regulars, classic is just how they like it.

“They like what they like,” says Steve Bennett, owner and manager at the Cork. “They know when they come here, they are going to get a certain thing. The dressing is going to taste the same, everything is going to be the same.”

The Evansville Cork ‘N Cleaver, 650 S. Hebron Ave., opened its doors to restaurant-goers in 1974. It was one of many in a chain of restaurants known for its southwestern décor and small menu of delectable cuts of steak.

“The menu started really simple, to where one person could cook for 250 or 300 people,” says Bennett. “It was just a few steaks and baked potatoes.”

Many customers who walk through Cork ‘N Cleaver’s doors aren’t aware it used to be part of a chain and was one of 80 others throughout the country. While its parent company Chart House began to sell and shut down Cork restaurants in the 1980s, Evansville’s location held its own.

“It was one of those things for Evansville that people just really latched on to,” adds Bennett.

Today there are three Corks still open — Evansville; Fort Wayne, Indiana; and Fargo, North Dakota. All are now independently owned. Bennett says back in the day, Evansville’s Cork was especially popular during “happy hour.”

“There was a lot of mystique about it,” he says. “We have an attorney who comes in and he said growing up, there always was this mystery at the Cork ‘N Cleaver.

“Then when he got old enough to come in here, it wasn’t that at all,” says Bennett with a laugh.

Bennett’s history with Cork ‘N Cleaver goes back a bit farther than when he became owner of the restaurant. In college, he broke into the business making rolls at Grandy’s and his career evolved from there. Doing stints at Ashley Grill and Outback Steakhouse, Bennett would find his way to the Cork ‘N Cleaver as a server in 1995 and 1998. Even after he no longer worked for the restaurant, the Cork was still a lunch spot for him. It would be during one lunch visit that he learned the restaurant was for sale.

“We ended up buying it on April Fool’s Day in 2001,” he says with a smile. “It wasn’t planned, but now I’m kind of wondering. It wasn’t a good omen or a bad omen, though. It’s been great. We’ve had a lot of success.”

He attributes that success to customers who regularly make the Cork a special dinner spot. It’s the continued local support from the community that keeps things moving at the restaurant — a fact not at all lost on Bennett.

Bennett prides himself on the fact many guests choose the Cork as the spot where important occasions are celebrated. Some guests come out just once a year, and he and his staff strive to make those experiences the best in the city.

“We’re always a part of someone’s birthday, someone’s anniversary, someone’s successful business proposal,” he adds. “That’s what I like.”

The small restaurant appears much as it did back in the early 1970s. The older building may have its challenges, says Bennett, but the little quirks from over the years give it character.

“If we went to a brand new building, it wouldn’t be the Cork,” he adds.

A few changes are underway, however. To accommodate his customers who hold parties at the restaurant, Bennett is in the process of finishing a private room at the back of the building.

The menu at the Cork also has seen little change since the restaurant opened its doors more than 40 years ago; and that’s what his core base of customers like, says Bennett. Known in Evansville for being etched on a meat cleaver, the Cork’s menu still showcases hand-cut steak options, along with several seafood and chicken dishes, appetizers, and desserts.

The salad bar is popular, as well. It offers basic salad options as well as pasta salad and anchovies. Many customers come in at lunch or even dinner for a quick to-go salad off the bar, located centrally in the restaurant.

“Everything is kind of like apples and oranges. Everything is good in its own right,” says Bennett. “There are so many great things here. Most of the stuff we do, it’s been done like that for 40 years.”

Cork-goers most often start meals with an order of Caps ‘N Cheese. The signature appetizer of the restaurant, it consists of mushroom caps stuffed with cream cheese, beef base, and garlic powder. They are set in a dish, covered with provolone and parmesan cheeses, and then baked in an oven. The bite-sized, cheesy mushrooms are topped off with a bit of parsley before serving, offering up a tasty dish even non-mushroom lovers can enjoy.

For lunch, Bennett offers a menu filled with sandwiches, burgers, and entrées similar to the dinner menu. Burgers are made with the same top-quality meat as the steaks and cooked to order with many topping options available. Chicken sandwiches, Reubens, and tenderloins find spots on the menu as well.

Dinner serves up steak options of kabobs, filet mignons, New York strips, center cuts, prime rib, and different specials every day. Fresh fish is brought in at least every two days, and choices range from Atlantic salmon to crab and lobster tail. Bennett also orders different fresh fish selections through the week.

“Seafood is very popular here,” he says. “The blue cheese salmon is a favorite.”

Pecan-crusted chicken, Sante Fe pork, and bourbon-glazed chicken help fill out the rest of the menu. Sides have grown to include steamed asparagus or broccoli, sautéed garlic mushrooms, and the well-loved twice-baked potato.

A delicious, sweet way to end your meal is with a slice of mud pie.

Made with an Oreo cookie crust and homemade coffee ice cream, slices are dunked in chocolate, frozen, and then topped with whipped cream and sliced toasted almonds. The red velvet cheesecake is another crowd favorite for dessert. Topped with cream cheese icing and whipped cream, the velvety cheesecake is made in-house.

Though much doesn’t change at the Cork ‘N Cleaver, neither Bennett nor his customers seem to care. As long as the food is good and the company is great, Evansvillians will keep coming to the classic spot.

“It’s just a simple place. We don’t do anything fancy,” he says. “That’s kind of been the secret. People ask why this place has been here for 40 years and I just say it’s because we keep it simple.”

Location: 650 S. Hebron Ave.
Phone: 812-479-6974
Dining Hours: Lunch — 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday; Dinner — 4 to 8 p.m. Sun.; 4 to 9 p.m. Mon. through Thurs.; and 4 to 10 p.m. Fri. and Sat. Early Bird specials are served from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Mon. through Sun. Reservations are recommended.
Website: evansvillecork.com
Adult Beverages: Yes
Prices: $3.50-$25.95
Payment: All major credit cards accepted.

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