By Tim Mandese, food writer
Cowboy State Daily
If there are two things Wyomingites appreciate most, they are tradition, and beef. When you combine those two things, it attracts people like a moth to a flame or in this case, a steak to a flame grill.
I love traveling far and wide to bring you tales of culinary delights, and by far and wide, I mean as wide as Wyoming, and as far as my fork will take me.
My fork is my compass and today it led me to a place I’ve heard about for some time now.
When I tell people that I write this column, they are always quick to give me advice about places I “must” visit. High on the list has always been Svilar’s Steakhouse and Saloon, in the tiny town of Hudson, Wyoming.
Halfway between Riverton and Lander, Svilar’s has given Hudson a reputation for good food, known nationwide since 1941, but the history of the family’s involvement in the location goes way back to 1912.
As Danny Svilar, the 29-year-old grandson of the founding Svilars told me,… yes, I said 29-year-old grandson, but more on that in a moment. …celebrities the likes of Neal Armstrong, the first man on the moon, as well as President John F. Kennedy, comedian Phyllis Diller, and cowboy actor Roy Rogers, to name a few, all graced the red booths and the tables of Svilars’.
Can you imagine sitting in the same booth where the man who first set foot on the moon ate a meal?
Sorry to name drop again, but when asked about it, even the well known foodie Duncan Hines of cake mix fame, once said about Hudson Wyoming, and Svilar’s, “Ah yes. That tiny town. Splendid food, excellent. And what a surprise.”
Brushes with fame aside, what is it about this modest restaurant that would attract people of such note, as well as common folk from coast to coast? It’s simple, food, damned good food. The one thing people have traveled the world to enjoy for thousands of years.
Svilar’s hasn’t been in Hudson thousands of years, but you might be surprised just how long. It all started as a tender love story. A steak tender love story to be exact.
In 1895, Bessie Sevenovich was born in Yugoslavia, and Dan “Big Dan” Svilar was born there a year later in 1886. The fated couple immigrated separately to the US, with Dan arriving in 1906 and Bessie in 1909.
In 1912, Dan purchased the bar at the current restaurant’s location, known then as the Miner’s Bar. The bar still operates but is now part of Svilar’s, and the front portion of the restaurant.
After arriving in America, Bessie ran a boarding house in Grand Island Nebraska, until her then husband, Joe Mastelica passed. It was at that point that she and her children moved to Hudson, in 1916. It was here that Dan and Bessie met, fell in love, and married, thus cementing a legacy that remains today.
In 1929, the couple had a son, Dan “Mike” Svilar. This Dan was followed 62 years later, by grandson Danny. That’s how you get from 1886 to 2022 in only three generations. Mind, blown. It is Danny Svilar that is the font of the Svilar family’s history, from which this story flows.
By the way, if I haven’t done enough name-dropping in telling me this story, while Danny Svilar recounted the family restaurant’s history, he pointed up at one point and said “Oh, and Dick Cheney installed these ceiling tiles.”
Turns out that his Danny’s father, Mike, was a Wyoming state senator for a time, and little Dick Cheney was his pageboy.
Ok, now back to the story. As grandson Danny tells it, Bessie Svilar had a huge heart, and a soft spot for people in need. “My grandmother was very well known among the ‘bum circuit,’ or railroad bums,” he said.
“If you were one of those riding the rails back then, and you were hungry, needed a place to get cleaned up, or sleep, she would help you out.”
Having come here with nothing, Bessie felt compelled to pay back the country that did so much for her. She did this out of the kindness of her own huge heart. Now called “Momma Svilar,” she started out serving, these people in need, her “chicken in the rough,” or what we call today, fried chicken. As her reputation for kindness and good food grew, the Svilars thought that they might be on to something.
By this time it was 1941, and they added pizza to the then famous fried chicken. It was a couple of years later that steaks were added to the menu, and the legend of Svilar’s was born.
The pizza is gone, but today, the family carries on the tradition started these many years ago, one that attracted all those famous faces, and multitudes of ordinary folk alike.
After all this history, I was eager to be part of it as a customer. I grew up in a family butcher shop, and this kind of legacy means a lot to me.
Today, the menu still has their Chicken In The Rough, now “Deluxe Fried Chicken,” and of course steaks. If you go the beef route, there’s one of Momma Svilar’s well known specialties that comes with every steak served, a side dish of sarma, and raviolis!
For the uninitiated, sarma is a cabbage roll, but not just any cabbage roll. Leaves of cabbage are filled with Momma Svilar’s recipe of meat and seasoning and then cooked for hours in a home-made tomato sauce. It’s a recipe that even Danny Svilar says is kept a secret, from him.
You might think you know ravioli, but I guarantee you haven’t had them like this. Tender and delicious, and filled with yet another of Momma Svilar’s secret recipes.
On my visit to Svilar’s, I just had to have a steak, for their sake, as well as mine. My meat-cutting father would have had it no other way. I also wanted to get the side of sarma and ravioli that came with the steak. What steak to have though?
There is the T-Bone that’s a 32-ounce plate crusher. You can also get a Short Cut, or a Club Steak, as well as ribeyes, and filets. There’s also prime rib while it lasts.
A selection of seafood is also available, such as shrimp, halibut, lobster and crab. You can get these selections alone, or in combination with your steak.
I was feeling adventurous tonight, and honestly my eyes ended up being bigger than my stomach. I had ordered that plate crushing T-Bone, with a few fried shrimp for good measure. My friend tonight ordered the Chicken Deluxe.
First out was the side of sarma and ravioli. Being Italian, I’ve had good homemade ravioli, and these were just that. You could easily order them alone and make a meal of it. The pasta was soft and delicate and the filling moist, meaty and hearty. The sauce had the taste of a grandmother’s kitchen. The kind stirred with a big wooden spoon.
It had been a while since I had had a cabbage roll, so I was looking forward to the sarma. I had never heard of sarma until going to Svilar’s and I wondered how they differed from what I knew.
One bite and I was in love, but it was not what I was expecting. There’s something special going on in these little rolls. I love cabbage, and the meat filling in these leaves were the best I’d ever had. The unique flavor was the perfect appetizer.
It was after eating the first sarma, that I knew I was in trouble.
I had ordered that plate crusher and I didn’t know where I was going to put it all.
Just then, out came a steak so big that it had its own gravitational field. The kind of gravity that attracted every knife and fork in the dining room. I swear people were watching it come to the table slow motion, and I felt it should have had paparazzi snapping photos.
Hot on the heels of the T-Bone was the Deluxe Fried Chicken. It looks like the kind my mom used to make and my friend deeply inhaled the aroma as it was placed in front of him.
I’m spinning this T-Bone around, looking for a place to dive in when my friend tells me, “Man! You gotta try this chicken.” I replied “Are you kidding? Look what I have in front of me. Please let me know how it is.”
He assured me that the chicken was moist and juicy, and yet the batter was crispy. I was told that I didn’t know what I was missing.
The joke was on him though. I had the mother of all T-Bones in front of me. I ordered the steak medium rare and the sear on the outside, holding that hot pink center just out of sight. This USDA choice steak sang to me. The knife slid through the sear like it wasn’t even there.
This is a steak you don’t want to rush and why would you want to? Bite after bite got better and better.
This was a simple, clean, beef delight. I had only one problem, there were shrimp too. Again, where was I going to put it all? Remember, this was a huge piece of beef.
The shrimp were battered in, you guessed it, yet another secret recipe. They were jumbo shrimp, fried up golden and done until just tender. Cook a shrimp too long and it’s curtains but these guys were tender perfection.
I was quickly running out of room here but I didn’t want to stop. After a few more bites of steak, I did coast to a stop and part of me felt really bad to put this in a to-go box as I remembered that I loved thinly sliced cold steak just as much. A snack fit for a king, or an astronaut.
I got so much more than a good steak out of my trip to tiny Hudson, Wyoming, I also got a history lesson in family pride. I learned that everything good about Wyoming can be found inside four walls and on a plate.
As I started out by saying, if there are two things Wyomingites appreciate most, it’s tradition and beef. Svilar’s serves up both of these in abundance.
As Danny Svilar told me, “The nostalgia here is what really matters. Keeping things the way they are, is still important, because if something isn’t broken, you don’t fix it,” he said. “We are going 80 years strong here and I want to keep it going.”
It might be a little out of the way for some folks, but it’s so worth the journey. Remember, people have traveled from all corners of the country to get here. If astronaut Neal Armstrong can travel from the moon to Svilar’s, you know it’s out of this world.
Svilar’s Bar and Steakhouse is located at 173 S Main Street in Hudson, Wyoming. They are open Tuesday through Thursday, 5:00 pm to 9:30 pm, also Friday and Saturday, 5:00 pm to 10:00 pm., closed Sunday and Monday.
You can reach them at 307-332-4516 and on Facebook.