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Hensley's Top Shelf makes Yukon a destination
By Dave Cathey
| Published: July 3, 2012
YUKON — When Hensley's Top Shelf Grill opened in May of 2011 with a menu ranging from burgers to hand-cut steaks and premium seafood, probably few people outside of Canadian County recognized the significance beyond a really cool new restaurant opening.
Hensley's opening a little over a year ago in Yukon, signaled a leap from typical roadside diner fare to fine dining in a casual setting so folks in rural Canadian County don't have to drive into Oklahoma City for a nice family meal or intimate dinner for two.
Hensley's has seen steady growth since opening, and is developing a reputation for fine dining at affordable prices and a wine list that's second to none.
Across Canadian County
Plans for the restaurant stretch way back for owners John and Sadhna Kelly.
John's grandfather, Hutson Hensley, owned a service station called Consumer's in El Reno. In 1939, he added 10 stools and a grill to give it a diner. The menu included burgers and homemade pie for dime each.
Shortly after Hutson Hensley died in 1955, a larger restaurant was built and overseen by his wife Marian, son Marion, two daughters Dorothy and Linda, and friends Homer Faler and Jim Barker. It was then the diner started to be known as Hensley's.
In 1975, Linda and Don Kelly returned to El Reno to operate the business, and added the Best Western in 1977. In 1992, Hensley's was acquired by John Kelly and his wife Sadhna, who eventually sold the restaurant space, but kept the name, to concentrate on hotel expansion. The Kellys then opened their Yukon Best Western in 2000.
The Kellys eventually wanted to return the Hensley's name to Oklahoma's restaurant world but were in no hurry. Partnering with restaurant operations veteran Steve Stavinoha and Scott Williford, the idea was to serve food aimed at evolving palates while maintaining small-town hospitality and value.
Finding the right chef
Chef David W. Sullivan went straight from high school to some of the city's best kitchens: Terra Luna, Michael's Grill, Deep Fork Grill and Oak Tree Country Club.
Sullivan's last stop before Hensley's was at Oak Tree, where he settled in and bided his time. Like any chef, Sullivan always dreamed of having his own place — conceiving and executing a menu from his heart and architecting kitchen operations from scratch.
“I had a lot of people through the years they wanted to build a restaurant around my food,” Sullivan said. “After a while, you stop taking people too seriously, but you don't give up the dream.”
Stavinoha was one of those people Sullivan had listened to and dismissed.
“I had talked to Dave a couple of times over the years about opening a restaurant,” Stavinoha said. “But the timing just wasn't right. I didn't forget him, but I'm pretty sure he'd forgotten me.”
After Stavinoha refreshed Sullivan's memory, they began to plan. By the end of the conversation, Stavinoha had more than a chef — he had a brother from another mother and a partner.
Sullivan had a clear vision of the kind of restaurant he wanted to open with close to two decades of passion waiting to fuel the execution.
Dining at Hensley's
One of the linchpins of Sullivan's philosophy is hand-cutting his beef.
“Every steak that goes out of this kitchen has been cut by me,” he said. “I can cut you off a $35 steak if you want, or I can serve you the best burger you'll ever have,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan said the ground beef used to make the burgers are ground in house.
“The beef for the burgers comes from whatever I have left over from cutting the steaks,” he said. “I serve them a little rarer than most burgers because these are steak burgers, not hamburgers.”
The beef is typically cooked over pecan wood, imparting a delicate smoke that does for the top-choice beef what a proper acoustical environment does for a singer.
Seafood options run the gamut, including a tempura-style calamari that breaks the mold for this commonly seen appetizer. You'll find a fantastic meatloaf, which is a combination of ground beef and sausage and topped with Creole sauce. There are pasta dishes, roasted chicken and steaks that can be ordered standard or by the ounce.
“On the by the ounce, it's not about how big you want your steak, it's about how thick you want it,” he said.
Desserts are prepared in-house by sous chef Michelle Palazzo, who Sullivan brought with him from Oak Tree Country Club. Palazzo isn't strictly a pastry chef but one bite of her chocolate gateaux or cheesecake martini makes clear her gifts for dessert-making.
Hensley's also does wine, beer and bourbon dinners, and has a room available for private parties.
“This is a dream come true,” Sullivan said. “It really is. I love getting up in the morning and coming to work.”
Stavinoha agreed, “I've had jobs where I made a lot more money but was miserable. Nothing beats loving what you're doing.”
Hensley's opens Monday through Saturday at 11 a.m. with brunch service on Sunday's at 10 a.m. For more information, go online to htsdining.com or call 265-4076.