Oak Creek A lot about Big Tuna's restaurant in Oak Creek has changed since new owners John and Michele Barkal, and Fred and Kathy Matzdorf reopened the business on the Fourth of July.
There's a new menu that features all-American favorites such as half-pound burgers, deep-fried Gulf shrimp and steaks, but nixes the Mexican fare that previous owners offered.
There's a newly remodeled kitchen with enough space for both John Barkal and Fred Matzdorf, one of whom is always cooking.
There's even a new schedule -- 4 to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.
But some things have stayed the same, including the restaurant's name and the neon-pink-lit sign on the storefront.
"Everybody knows it," Michele Barkal said. "I think it's a fixture in the community, and there just didn't seem (to be) a need to change it."
Another feature that will stay the same is the restaurant's interior, with its big stuffed fish and the brightly painted scenes on the walls and ceiling. The scenes, which include a towering white castle surrounded by high rocky peaks, as well as a tree-lined road ending in a bright blue lake topped with gray and purple clouds, all leave room for the imagination.
"I think it does create some conversation. People kind of walk around and talk about it," Michele Barkal said.
Although the meaning of the painted scenes may not be clear, the passion that both the Barkals and the Matzdorfs have for being in the restaurant business is.
The Matzdorfs, who are also co-owners of Double Z's barbecue in Steamboat, have been in the restaurant business for several decades, working as chefs, managers and more.
Fred Matzdorf has been cooking since he was young, learning at his grandparents' lake resort. He moved to Steamboat Springs in 1972 -- he was 20 at the time -- and since then, has worked at restaurants serving fare that ranges from Chinese and Mexican to steaks and barbecue.
"I just enjoy it, creating good food and menus," Fred Matzdorf said.
Kathy Matzdorf will be making Big Tuna's specialty dessert Turtle Pie, which consists of coffee ice cream, an Oreo cookie crust, fudge, nuts and whipped cream.
She said she most enjoys "just making people happy and feeding them good food. And I enjoy the work itself."
John and Michele Barkal are new restaurant owners, although John Barkal has had extensive experience with cooking for and working in restaurants.
John Barkal started cooking in a steak house after school when he was 16 years old. Although his parents weren't accomplished chefs, he picked up the skills he needed almost immediately.
"I wound up cooking right off the bat -- cooking and cutting meat and prepping and doing all of that good stuff," he said.
He moved to Steamboat in 1988, where he began working at the Old West Steakhouse, and then started cooking with Fred Matzdorf.
A few years ago, John Barkal was reacquainted with his now-wife Michele. They had known each other in high school -- Michele was good friends with John's sister -- and even walked with each other down the aisle at John's sister's wedding. After getting to know each other again, and then getting married, Michele Barkal found herself looking at buying a restaurant, something she had never expected.
"This is totally different for me," she said, adding that her background in finance will help her keep track of the restaurant's money.
And though it's a different profession, Michele Barkal said the work is fun.
"This is one of his dreams -- to own his own restaurant," Michele Barkal said of her husband. "The opportunity came up and we just thought it was great. We had been looking in the Oak Creek area for a while. ... We were patient until things were right."
The Barkals and Matzdorfs said Oak Creek has been supportive and encouraging.
"We saw an open niche in the market down here. A lot of people don't want to drive to Steamboat just to eat," Fred Matzdorf said. "We're getting a lot of positive feedback from the locals."
In addition to filling a niche, the Matzdorfs and Barkals said that they feel they are bringing a family-run business to a town where family is central. Both families said their sons -- the Matzdorfs have a 12-year-old son and the Barkals have a 22-month old son -- will help out in the restaurant when they're old enough.
"This is our future. We're here. We're not planning on going anywhere," Michele Barkal said. "This is really a family place. It's owned and run by families and we want families to feel welcome and comfortable here."