Dining With Denise Neil

Kansas family turns old railroad station into a chic small-town dining destination

Most small towns in Kansas consider themselves lucky to have a Gambino’s pizzeria – or a Mexican restaurant or diner that stays in business longer than a year.

Winfield, a town of 12,300 that sits 41 miles south of Wichita, is not one of those Kansas towns.

Thanks to the Carroll family from nearby Arkansas City, tiny Winfield has lately become a bit of a dining destination.

In April, Rob and Janet Carroll and their two grown daughters opened a unique, lavishly decorated train-themed restaurant in an old railroad freight station on Winfield’s main drag, and it’s luring people from all over Cowley County – and from all over the state.

It’s called Shindigs Bar & Grill, and it was the only small-town restaurant nominated for a Kansas Restaurant and Hospitality Association Award this year, earning a nod in the “Hot New Concept” category.

The name of the restaurant does not adequately hint at what’s inside.

Never mind that Shindigs’ signature dish is a show-stopping, two-pound, bone-in tomahawk steak that fills up most of the butcher block it’s served on. Though the food is worth driving for, the real treat for Shindigs’ visitors is the hand-made industrial decor, which owner Rob Carroll spent three years crafting from old cars, bolts, chicken feeders, pulleys, aircraft landing strips – anything he could find in the junk yard and turn into something useful.

There’s the hostess stand crafted from an industrial vessel and valve. The wall-mounted beer dispenser made from the front of a 1924 International Truck. The upstairs bar made out of the front half of a 1957 Chevy. The chandeliers made from pulleys and inverted turkey feeders. The outdoor flower garden made out of oversized bolts. The men’s room urinals are made out of old beer kegs with stall dividers crafted from salvaged truck tailgates.

“I love the junk yard,” said Rob Carroll. “I’m the type of guy to take a sack lunch to the junk yard spend all day there – with no phone.”

But the restaurant doesn’t look junk-yard junky. It’s industrial chic, warm and slick and aesthetically cohesive – the type of place you’d expect to see in the big city.

But it’s Winfield.

A family’s restaurant dream

Rob Carroll grew up in Arkansas City, the son of a train conductor. His playgrounds were rail yards, and his mother was a lively half Italian, half Portuguese woman who loved to cook.

He married his high school sweetheart, Janet, and started work as a painter at Struthers Thermo-Flood Corporation in Winfield. The couple had two daughters and a son, and in 1987, Carroll started his own business – Rob Carroll's Sandblasting & Painting in Arkansas City.

Several businesses followed, and now the family owns 10, including, Sign Solutions, Carroll Properties, Salvy Sousa (a sauce company) and Signpast, which manufactures vintage looking baked enamel signs.

But the family long harbored a dream of owning a restaurant and serving the type of American dishes “with a twist” that Rob’s mother, Joni, was known for.

They thought about it for years before they discovered that Winfield’s old Santa Fe freight house, originally built in 1910, was for sale, and it was perfect. It sat right next to the railroad tracks, close enough that passing trains actually shake the building, and it was full of hidden vintage charm, including lots of exposed brick and original woodwork.

“We ended up buying the building, and one thing lead to another, and pretty soon it was like, ‘Heck, here we go,’” Rob said with a laugh.

The Carrolls decided to partner with their two daughters – 29-year-old Mallory, who runs Signpast, and daughter Molly, who owns her own hair salon in Arkansas City. They started dreaming and designing in their minds, discussing their plans over family dinners. They wouldn’t let anyone see what they were up to inside, and they spent three full years redoing the two-story building, which had most recently been home to a small Gambino’s.

In April, they opened, and people were amazed. Now, the restaurant is frequently packed with people dining on that giant steak or on blue cheese burgers, “chicken frizzled steak” or Junkyard Fries, which are topped with mushrooms, cheese curds, okra and an egg.

“What we wanted to create here was a destination dining experience,” said Janet, the Carroll who works in the restaurant day-to-day. “For years, people from our community here in Cowley County have been driving about an hour to Wichita to dine. Now, those Wichita people and people in Stillwater and Ponca City travel to us and come dine here.”

No ‘inside voices’

The Carroll family is loving and loud.

“We just have fun,” Mallory Avery said. “Our idea of a normal voice is probably everybody elses outdoor voice.”

They’re a family with deep roots in Cowley County, and when they get together for holiday dinners, 36 of them squeeze around the table.

The family wanted to bring that sense of whimsy and family – and their love of nostalgia, or “yesteryear,” as they frequently call it – to their restaurant.

Besides the vintage decor, the restaurant has many other amenities and interesting touches. One of the centerpieces of the dining room is a massive freight elevator door, which the Carrols found buried inside the walls when they remodeled the building. They lovingly refinished it and hung it at the entrance to the kitchen.

Visitors, who will at some point be dragged into the men’s room so Rob can show off his keg urinals, should also look closely at the nails in the floors and on the walls. Many of them are “date nails,” which once were used to nail down railroad ties and all are engraved with the year they were made. (Most in Shindigs are from the 1930s and 1940s.)

If customers find a seat on one of the restaurant’s two outdoor decks, their chances of seeing a passing train are better than decent. Even if they’re inside, the rumble of the train will stop conversation and shake the place, and that’s one of Rob’s favorite things. The family celebrates passing trains with the “conductor’s special.” Any time a train is in the crossing, customers get $2 draws of beer.

Another Carroll touch: The television set behind the bar is always playing old episodes of either “The Three Stooges” or “The Andy Griffith Show,” two of Rob’s favorites.

One of the most meaningful pieces in the restaurant, the family said, is a giant, rusty “Santa Fe” sign, which was stationed in front of the building until the Carrolls replaced it with their Shindigs sign. It now hangs on a wall just inside the entrance.

Shindigs seats 208 inside and another 75 on its two levels of outdoor space.

The Carrolls say they’ve been pleasantly surprised with the success of their restaurant so far, and they enjoy being there as much as they hope their customers do.

“We wanted a place that belonged to this community, where they could bring their business associates, they could bring their family, their friends and they could have that place they could brag about,” Janet Carroll said. “We want it to be everybody’s place. We may have built it, but we built it out of a labor of love for this community.”

Shindigs Bar & Grill

What: A new restaurant set up in an old railroad freight station in Winfield

Where: 500 Main Street, Winfield, 620-221-4782

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays

Website: www.shindigsbarandgrill.com

On the menu: American food with a twist: steaks, burgers, salads, pastas, sandwiches, chicken “frizzled” steak, chicken and more

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