Revamped Riverbend Roadhouse reopens

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— Mark Stanczak can still smell the Polish sausage simmering in the backyard smoker in preparation for Easter Sunday.

Stanczak grew up in Gurnee, Ill., watching his grandparents prepare traditional Eastern European dishes, including homemade sausages in natural casings. He never stopped cooking from the time he was a boy, and today, Stanczak is the chef at the newly reopened Riverbend Roadhouse on U.S. 40 west of Steamboat.

The Riverbend Inn, right across the parking lot from the Steamboat Golf Course, was a tradition among Steamboat diners for 27 years. Previous owners Larry and Mary Jean Matheis built a following for their barbecued-rib and fish-fry specials.

A local couple, Paul and Reed Stephenson, purchased the restaurant and closed it three months ago for cleaning and remodeling. Paula Stephenson said she and her husband grabbed Stanczak when he responded to a want ad for a chef.

"We were very luck to get Mark," Paula said. "And he has an amazing wife, Amy, who is our floor and bar manager."

The Stephensons want the revived Riverbend to continue its tradition of offering a comfortable spot for local families to relax and dine. They've altered the name slightly and completely remodeled the small lounge in the restaurant to make it lighter and brighter. The restaurant appears largely unchanged, but the Stephensons have made both the dining room and bar nonsmoking environments.

The Riverbend has the potential for a built-in clientele with the golf course next door, and the Stephensons have the contract to serve on-course refreshments. But Paula said they have work to do in order to rebuild traffic at the restaurant after closing it down for three months.

"When we first closed, we were still getting six calls a night for reservations," she said. "Now, we get a call every other night."

The Stephensons have backgrounds in restaurant work and in business.

Paula was previously a management consultant, but she served cocktails in college and knows the ins and outs of the business. At the Riverbend, she's most often stationed at a computer watching the books, but she'll take a few shifts behind the bar.

Reed has a degree in business from the University of Colorado and 15 years of experience managing bars, including five years as a stockholder at the Steamboat Brewery and Tavern.

Reed has also built homes in Steamboat and worked in property management.

"I sold my interest (in the brewery and tavern) and here I am," Reed said. "This combines all three of my professional interests."

He sees a great deal of potential in the Riverbend property, which is zoned mixed-use commercial. It is on the western edge of the "West of Steamboat" planning area, which is designated for future annexation by the city as new residential subdivisions grow to the west of town.

In addition to remodeling the restaurant's bar, Reed refurbished nine apartments over the restaurant to serve as employee housing.

While the work on the bar is important, the Stephensons' emphasis is on the menu and rebuilding the restaurant's clientele.

Stanczak worked closely with the Stephensons on the new menu, which includes appetizers such as "Gator Bites" and three-bean chili.

The chili has a hearty flavor that can be traced to the Guinness Stout Stanczak uses. Guinness Stout also gives the traditional stew its rich coloration.

Reed waves at a customer who is deeply engrossed in a third of a pound burger and declares that the $5 meal, which includes a half-pound of fries, says it all.

Stanczak has put his stamp on the burgers by offering a range of mayonnaise-based sauces known as aioli. They come in seven flavors including black sesame, wasabi and red Thai curry.

Dinner entrees range in price from $8.50 for seafood tacos to $17 for baby back ribs. There are five items on the children's menu, all priced at $4, including ice cream.

Stanczak, trained at the New England Culinary Institute, is also proud of his desserts and says a major Chicago newspaper once proclaimed his tiramisu to be the best this side of Italy.

Diners might be surprised to find Stanczak hasn't put any sausages on the menu give him time, he says.

And he promises some wild game dishes will appear by fall, probably to include some exotic sausages.

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