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'Best steaks ever': Alexandria restaurant icon remembered

Richard "Sonny" Osterberg at the charcoal grill where he cooked within view of his customers for 28 years. (Contributed)1 / 2
Richard "Sonny" Osterberg and his wife, Helen. (Contributed) 2 / 2

For 28 years, Richard "Sonny" Osterberg presided over his red brick grill at the Fireside Steakhouse, cooking steaks and chicken dinners while customers watched and chatted with him.

"Some of the best steaks ever," recalled County Commissioner Charlie Meyer, who had his groom's dinner there nearly 40 years ago. "He would stand there and grill them. His was one of the first places you'd ever seen where the chef would stand in front of the customers with the grill."

Osterberg, who died on Thursday, Oct. 4, at age 94, was trained as a chemist but spent most of his working life in the restaurant business, starting at Osterberg's Cafe, which his father ran in downtown Alexandria.

He was arguably best known for his years at Fireside, which he bought in 1968 and sold in 1996. He cooked steaks, chicken and "Sonny's Walleye." He ordered charcoal by the train car load, storing the bags in a four-car garage, said his oldest son, Patrick Osterberg.

Friends would talk to him while he worked, and customers would ask to be seated in booths so they could watch him, said Catie Osterberg, his oldest granddaughter. Children enjoyed watching him too, but they had to stay at a safe distance. The heat from the grill was so intense that his face would be red, she said. He kept a TV on so he could watch "the game," usually Twins baseball.

"I have a lot of respect for the man and I always did," said Meyer, also a restauranteur. "My memories of Sonny were great. He was one of the nicest men you'd ever meet. He found the best in everybody. ... You never heard him talking bad about anybody."

Sonny had seen railroad cars at other restaurants and always wanted one of his own, his son recalled. So when a former dining car's wheels locked up near the Alexandria depot and its owner no longer wanted it, he snapped it up for $1,000.

"It cost him another $5,000 to move it," Patrick Osterberg remembered.

They built tracks for it to sit on and attached the car to the Fireside Steakhouse. Customers would pass through the bar and climb steps to enter the rail car, where they could eat or play pinball. The restaurant has been closed in recent years, but the railroad car is still there.

Sonny's work ethic was notable, said family and friends. He was the only cook at Fireside and it was open every day but Monday, from 5-10 p.m. And on Monday, they said, he still went in, to take care of other business. Even on the days the restaurant was closed to the public, Thanksgiving and Christmas, it was open for family, and he cooked then, too.

He kept a garden, baked bread for the restaurant, and sang. He sang at weddings, funerals and Mass. He sang 1950s rock 'n' roll tunes for his wife. He sang the national anthem at Gophers football games.

"I don't think anyone would argue this, that he was the best tenor to come out of Alexandria at that time," his son said.

Sonny kept a huge bulletin board, and people from all over the country would pin their business cards there. When he heard about a sick boy wanting people to send him business cards, he sent all the cards on his board — perhaps 500 — to the boy, Patrick Osterberg said. It wasn't long before the bulletin board filled back up.

When at last he retired from the restaurant business, Catie Osterberg said, the whole family and many customers gathered at the restaurant for a party. He cooked that day, too.

"I was 15, and I just remember we took tons of pictures that day of all corners of the restaurant," she said. "We knew, all we kids knew, this was a big deal."

Even after Sonny retired, he hung onto his fondness for cooking. During his one attempt to run for county commissioner, he included a recipe for "Sonny's Fireside Kidney Bean Salad" on the back of his cards.

Some of his recipes have passed on to his children and grandchildren: casseroles and hot dishes, his recipe for beef stroganoff. His secret for making chicken, Patrick Osterberg said, was to boil it before cooking it.

During his last two years, Sonny suffered from dementia. Yet he kept making motions with his hands like he was picking up tongs and turning steaks, Catie Osterberg said.

"You knew he was at Fireside," she said. "Even at the end, he was fixing people steaks."