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1305 Hwy 34, Benkelman, NE
Molly Horner, Manager
Katie Patch, Owner and Chef
Lunch, Monday – Friday, 11 am to 2 pm.
Dinner, Monday-Thursday, 5pm to 9 pm
Friday & Saturday 5pm to 10 pm. Closed on Sundays.
Benkelman’s Skyline Grill offers authentic Nebraska fare
by Betty Sayers
One thing Nebraska has in abundance is wide open spaces. As we drive west along U.S. 34, the scenery unfolds like a slow-motion travel video. Leaving the irrigated corn and soybean fields and small towns with white clapboard houses and grain elevators of south central Nebraska, we transition into vast expanses of bluestem grass, sage, yucca and dramatic views of white cumulous clouds, each topping another, like a mile high pie in a sapphire sky.
We’re on our way to Benkelman, and one of the last places to eat in Nebraska before you pass over into Colorado — or, looked at another way, one of the first opportunities eastbound travelers have to sample real Nebraska fare. Our goal is the Skyline Grill in Benkelman, which has been intriguing us since their grand opening in November, 2011.
The Skyline Grill is right on Highway 34, a well-traveled blue highway for tourists who aim for Colorado or perhaps to points south like Arizona and New Mexico. As we approached, we smiled at the long double-row of pick up trucks lined up along two sides of a handsome ranch style building. One thing we’ve learned as Rural Foodies is that a collection of pickup trucks surrounding a restaurant at mealtime is usually a good sign.
Convenience, simplicity, smart design and cleanliness are words to express our first impression of the Skyline Grill. Katie Patch is the owner and chef; her father who owns a cement contracting business, and sister Molly helped design the building.
A signature feature is a full-service bar constructed in the shape of a horseshoe. The bar, like the floor of the entire restaurant, is made of highly-polished concrete, waxed until it glows, with veins of color worked into the surface to add a natural, earthy appearance — which we imagine is also highly durable and very easy to clean.
Molly, who takes care of the front of the house, greeted and seated us at a spacious booth with a view of the kitchen. Natural light floods the seating area from east windows, giving the atmosphere in the dining room a feeling as open as its location on the sand-sage prairie.
A busy place
For a town of less than 1000, the Skyline Grill is hopping. The restaurant seats 120 and the lunch crowd rapidly fill most of the available tables and booths. Molly told us they usually serve 50-80 lunches Monday through Saturday, and dinners average 75 people except on weekends when they plan for 200 meals.
The Skyline Grill features a special every day and also has a true Nebraska menu featuring hamburgers, chicken fried steak, hot beef sandwich, French dip, and a Philly cheese steak as well as grilled Panini, a selection of “signature sandwiches” and a create-your-own sandwich option.
Sipping our iced teas, fresh lemonade and ice water, we made our choices: a lettuce, tomato, onion and pickle burger served with in-house sweet potato fries; the special of the day, which is a gyro sandwich; a grilled chicken pesto Panini; and a smoked ham sandwich with leaf lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and a creamy dill sauce.
Customers come first
While we waited for our lunches, we learned from Molly that all the sauces, dressings, appetizers, and desserts are made in-house with one exception, the tiramisu.
“When we opened,” she said, “we bought it from a supplier to try it, and our customers liked it. We took it off the menu, but they requested we bring it back, so it remains on the menu.”
Molly and Katie know they have to be responsive to their customers from a wide swath of rural Nebraska, Colorado and Kansas to be successful.
“Katie makes an amazing meatloaf and we served it on a few Mondays when we first opened and called it ‘Meatloaf Monday.’ Then we started serving a steak sandwich on Fridays and that became ‘Steak on Friday’,” Molly said. Now, she said they have a special every day, which they list on the Skyline Grill Facebook page.
“We were completely taken by surprise when we found that our patrons sometimes drive 60 miles to eat lunch or dinner at the Skyline Grill,” Molly said. “The number of rib-eye steaks and plates of prime rib we serve on Friday and Saturday evenings tells us that the Skyline Grill has achieved the status of a ‘night out’ for families and couples who live in our region.”
Our meals arrive
When our lunches arrive, we notice that one of the concessions to the local taste buds is that the gyro is a bit less spicy than the traditional style and more like succulent, thinly-sliced steak on fresh pita bread. The creamy sauce and fresh vegetables, however, add plenty of flavor and crunch. The special included an ear of fresh, locally grown ear of sweet corn served with chipotle butter, which drew the comment, “This sweet corn is the best sweet corn of the summer.” Her statement speaks volumes since we come from a county in Nebraska with farmers and gardeners who pride themselves on growing the sweetest and most flavorful sweet corn in the United States.
The chicken pesto Panini got raves for the house-made pesto sauce and the sweet potato fries. We all tasted the hamburger and commented on the fine flavor and lean nature of the meat; Molly told us they purchase grass-fed hamburger locally. The creamy dill sauce added depth to the smoky ham flavor in the ham on marble rye sandwich while the deep green lettuce leaves added a fresh crunch.
Molly returned to collect our empty plates and describe the dessert menu. With a smile she says, “Desserts are popular at the Skyline Grill. We prepare all of them in our kitchen except, of course, the tiramisu.”
We ordered a lemon cream and meringue dessert, a chocolate brownie, a strawberry cake with cream cheese frosting, and a tiramisu. We preferred the desserts made in the Skyline Grill kitchen, but then we always are biased toward fresh and local foods.
Plan a stop in Benkelman
Highway 34 provides a scenic tour through some of the most beautiful parts of Nebraska and if you always take Interstate 80 to Colorado, you owe it to yourself to discover the pleasures of the “back way.” If you go, plan a little time in Benkelman. We enjoyed the Rose Grove, a surprising gift store featuring roses, scented creams and soaps, greeting cards, and many gift items.
And, of course, plan a stop at the Skyline Grill for lunch or dinner. It’s about as authentic a Nebraska restaurant as you’re likely to find anywhere.