The legendary Buckhorn Steakhouse

Buckhorn Steakhouse was recognized by Certified Angus Beef.
Buckhorn Steakhouse owner John Pickerel (center left) accepts the Certified Angus Beef brand’s Legendary Steakhouse Award with his daughter and Chief Operations Officer Emarie DeVaglio (center) and an Sept. 25 awards ceremony in Ashville, North Carolina. Courtesy photo.

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Last month, the Buckhorn Steakhouse in Winters was recognized by the Certified Angus Beef brand’s national Legendary Steakhouse award for the commitment of owners John Pickerel and wife Melanie Bajakian to serving only the choicest cuts of beef, but it was a gamble when Pickerel and Bajakian made the switch 25 years ago. 

Pickerel and Bajakian, who, with their daughter Emarie VanGalio, run the Buckhorn’s flagship restaurant, its food truck and catering operations, fast-casual locations from Vacaville to Sacramento, as well as the Putah Creek Cafe in Winters, accepted the award Sept. 23-25, in Asheville, N.C. at the Certified Angus Beef brand’s Annual Conference. The award recognizes steakhouses that exclusively serve Certified Angus Beef, a brand of premium beef, which applies only to cattle from ranchers who follow scientifically backed practices to breed, feed and raise cattle and meet ten quality standards.

The Buckhorn Steakhouse has been a destination restaurant serving customers from Solano County to Sacramento since it took over the long-vacant corner space of the historic De Vibliss Hotel in and became a paragon of success in downtown Winters nearly 40 years ago.

Pickerel, who came to California from Idaho with a background in cattle husbandry and had worked as butcher and general manager of the Cattleman’s in Dixon, said he knew people would make the trip to Winters as they had done when the space was occupied by the Buckhorn Dining Room owned by Burma and Vic Mentink for 16 years.

“We set out to reestablish the Buckhorn on Main Street. But I knew that we’d have to have signature items that were indelible—that people talked about,” Pickerel said.

Pickerel and his wife borrowed the name and a couple of signature dishes from the Metinks, but added more steaks to the menu when they and opened what would become a paragon of business success in downtown Winters.

It took some time to track down the previous owner, who was living in Calistoga, hard of hearing and blind, but Pickerel finally got him to Winters and show him how to make the signature Prime Rib and German Potato Soup the Buckhorn had been known for.

Although business increased each year, with much of the Buckhorn’s success and renown credited to it becoming the de facto steakhouse for families UC Davis students from all over the country and world, Pickerel said that the decision to invest in the costlier Certified Angus cuts has served as the linchpin for the brand’s appeal.

“The turning point, I think, was when we did the Certified Angus Beef,” Pickerel said. “We realized that customers do recognize the quality, and you can separate yourself in customer perception and awareness, at least when you’re serving beef. Beef is a special occasion meal—it beats the heck out of chicken.”

Pinkerel’s background in cattle helped him research the best sources of beef, and he settled on Certified Angus Beef, which he praised for its rigorous standards.

“It’s kind of like putting a man on the moon each month. It’s not easy,” he said. But, Pickerel’s investment has seen generous returns, and proved people are willing to pay for the quality.

Says Pinkerel, “Good meat ain’t cheap, and cheap meat ain’t good.”

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