The Great 611 Steak Company on Franklin Road is named after the iconic Class J #611 steam locomotive built at the Norfolk & Western East End Shops here in Roanoke in 1950. The distinctive black engine with the red stripe down the side has become a symbol of Roanoke’s history and the importance of rail in the state; so much so that it now graces the Virginia “Railway Heritage” license plate.
The restaurant’s décor grabs this historic theme and runs with it; the dining room is practically an annex of the Virginia Museum of Transportation; stuffed with rail memorabilia and historic artifacts from Roanoke in general, including several Eric Fitzpatrick prints of notable Roanoke locales. There may or may not be a connection between this theme and good steak, but it’s so much fun, who cares?
Ah, steak. Just saying the word out loud tastes good. At the Great 611, you do your penance before you sin, in the form of the salad bar. But don’t worry, they make it easy. A salad bar is kind of a hard thing to get excited about, but they really go all out. Dozens of traditional salad items, and even taco fixings, potato skins and other hot vegetables. I made it a point to get my veggies first, in the knowledge that there was going to be precious little in the way of roughage. A bed of spinach, some carrots, peppers, tomatoes, cukes… and yeah, a fair bit of cheddar cheese, just to make sure it wasn’t too healthy.
The menu continued the motif, liberally sprinkling rail terms throughout (sometimes quite aptly: the Long Island ice tea on the drink menu was dubbed “The Train Wreck.” I don’t want to know what goes in “The Hobo’s Bindle.”) There’s a New York Strip called “The Pullman,” and the Prime Rib (unfortunately only available on the weekends) is called “The Smokestack.”
I was tempted by the fried catfish with hushpuppies, but I couldn’t say no to the petite filet mignon and lobster tail (oh, bacon, there is nothing that can’t be made better by wrapping you around it…). Our server, who had the well-fed look of a steak aficionado about him, suggested that I try the seven-pepper “powder keg” seasoning blend, which wonderfully accented the smoky bacon and juicy beef. The steak definitely outshone the lobster, which was slightly tough and lacking in flavor; it would have been hard to beat that tender and flavorful beef.
My wife told me that her ribeye (dubbed “The Boxcar”) was pretty good, and I felt like she was trying to challenge my steak’s goodness. I couldn’t let that kind of beef-aggression go unchecked, so I stole a little chunk of hers. (Don’t feel too bad for her; I distracted her with a good-sized piece of lobster.) Turned out she was on to something. Very tender, and with plenty of flavorful marbling. Both steaks were cooked precisely to order, perhaps demonstrating that when you focus on one kind of food, you can really nail down how to do it right.
We decided reluctantly to opt out of dessert, though there were plenty of tempting-looking cakes and other sweets at the end of the salad bar, waving and beckoning. And the toppings at the soft -serve station also had a certain attractiveness. Moderation won out, though, and we walked on past, happy in the knowledge that we’d just fed ourselves pretty well for a really reasonable price. Maybe the catfish next time.
Ah, who am I kidding? I’m getting the ribeye.