Big Texan Steak Ranch (Amarillo, Texas)

The Big Texan Steak Ranch
Photo by Mark Cameron

The Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo, Texas, is a steakhouse restaurant, motel, and roadside attraction best known for its 72 ounce steak challenge. Opened in 1960 on the 4500 block of East Amarillo Boulevard, a stretch of road that was part of historic U.S. Route 66, the Big Texan soon became known as much for its distinctive architecture and hospitality as it was for being a great place to stop for big steaks grilled over an open flame.

Bob Lee, a Midwesterner, with a family history that included the four-star Savoy Grill in Kansas City, was largely drawn to Texas for the mystique, having grown up on stories of cowboys and Indians, there was no place to find such joy as the Lone Star state. When he finally moved to Texas he did exactly what he had always done and opened a restaurant.

Lee’s restaurant, the original Route 66 Big Texan opened in 1960, and despite having seen thousands of hungry diners in his life, Lee was actually quite surprised at the number of authentic cowboys came in for the Texas sized steaks he was serving. The cowboys, most of whom worked at nearby stockyards, were stopping in after long days of hard work with money in their pockets and the sort of Texas sized appetites one might expect. As a way to help ensure they would continue to stop in for something to eat, Lee would cash their Friday paychecks, serve them giant steaks for $5.00, and sell them 25 cent beers.

In 1970, with the slow but steady decline of traffic along Route 66, the Big Texan relocated to its current location along the newer Interstate 40. A fire destroyed much of the west wing of the restaurant in 1976, and more than $100,000 in antiques were destroyed. After the fire, the restaurant was only closed for a single day, and by 1977 was larger than ever and featured its now famous bright yellow and blue paint job.

The 72oz Steak Challenge started in 1962, when Lee held a contest to see which of the cowboys that frequented his restaurant could eat the most steaks in one hour. The entry fee was five dollars and whoever won would get their money back. One of the hungry cowboys ate four and a half 1-pound steaks, a shrimp cocktail, a baked potato, a dinner roll, and a salad, impressed all his friends, and won the grand prize of a crisp $5.00 bill. The story goes that Lee was so surprised by the near super human feat that he declared any person who could eat that much in an hour would get their meal free of charge.

The Big Texan has been featured in numerous movies and TV shows including Waking Up in Reno (with Billy Bob Thornton), Travel Channel’s Man v. Food, and Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations.

The Big Texan Facts

  • In 2013, viewers of Bob Phillips’s Texas Country Reporter voted the Big Texan the “No. 1 Steakhouse in Texas”.
  • Anyone may take on the 72oz Steak Challenge, but payment is required in advance and the cost is refunded if successful.
  • More than 100,000 people have tried to conquer the 72oz challenge, and success rates hover around 15%.
  • The 72oz Steak Challenge has been going strong since 1962.
  • The record for the shortest time to finish the entire 72oz steak challenge is held by diminutive competitive eater Molly Schuyler, who finished the meal on April 19, 2015  in 4 minutes 18 seconds, beating her own record by 40 seconds.
  • The giant cowboy sign, was moved from its original location to the new restaurant by helicopter.
  • 72 ounces is 4.5 pounds or 2.04 kg.