Ken Bromfield would like to clear up one of the urban legends of Frederick County.
Bromfield, co-owner of the Red Horse Steakhouse, has heard time and again about people stealing the red statue of a horse that stands bolted down in the restaurant’s parking lot along West Patrick Street.
The horse was “stolen” once as part of a planned prank by students of Middletown High School, said Bromfield, who started at the restaurant a few months after it opened in January 1968.
And another time, Bromfield got a call from an off-duty police officer who said he was driving behind a pickup truck with a horse statue in the back, and asked Bromfield if the restaurant’s statue was missing.
Bromfield said it was, and the officer promptly pulled over the truck’s teenage driver and returned the horse to its perch.
Every high school in the county claims that its class was the one that originally stole the horse, Bromfield said.
“It only happened twice, once was a pre-arranged prank, and once with a juvenile delinquent,” he said, sitting behind a cluttered desk in the venerable restaurant’s back office.
The Red Horse is still going strong in its 50th year, even as much about the restaurant industry has changed.
“When we first opened up, dining was an art form,” Bromfield said.
On weekends, men wore coats and ties and women wore cocktail dresses, and it wasn’t unusual for people to stay two or three hours for a meal.
Seemingly everyone smoked, and many diners would have a drink or two before dinner, and perhaps a bottle of wine with dinner.
When Bromfield first came to the restaurant, the kitchen had two large deep-fat fryers, and people ordered pretty much all their seafood fried.
With the exception of some shrimp and maybe some onion rings, “I hardly sell fried anything in this day and age,” he said.
Co-owner Roy Bromfield said people seem to be more savvy about their food, an influence he credits to the Food Network and other cable shows.
“They’re becoming a little sharper,” he said.
Along with the dining room upstairs, what’s now a banquet and reception hall downstairs used to be the restaurant’s Golden Horseshoe Lounge, where live bands and DJs performed from the lounge’s opening in 1974 through the mid-1990s.
While the dining room was better ventilated, the lounge would often have a foot or two of haze from the lingering smoke, Roy Bromfield said.
Upstairs, the restaurant’s staff of waiters, many of whom were black, became renowned for their ability to remember orders without writing them down.
Some longtime customers would rearrange their seats after placing their orders to try to throw the waiters off, but without success.
“It was a source of pride, and to the customers, a source of amazement,” he said.
Taking orders by memory is a tradition that continues, said Kileen Smith, a waitress in her 27th year who is the company’s longest-tenured employee.
“It just becomes habit,” she said.
One of the biggest changes she’s noticed has been the introduction of the cellphone at the dinner table.
It’s sometimes hard to get customers’ attention when you come to the table, which wasn’t the case when Smith started.
“You felt a little closer to the table, personally,” she said.
Behind the restaurant’s upstairs bar, bartender Don Cline keeps moving all the time: filling glasses with ice, mixing drinks, and closing out customers’ bar tabs.
“What are you drinking these days, Dan?” he asks a customer.
The familiarity is legitimate. Cline has tended bar at the Red Horse for 25 years.
Drinks change over time, but you’ve still got your standards, such as Manhattans and martinis, he said.
Cline said he used to tend bar downstairs in the lounge, which had more of a party atmosphere than the dining room bar.
But after more than two decades, he said he still loves getting to talk with the regulars and meeting new people.
“When it ceases to be fun, I’m done,” he said.
That’s Ken Bromfield’s philosophy as well.
The restaurant’s property is up for sale, but Bromfield said he’s in good health and still enjoys his job.
“We’re not in any hurry. We plan to be here for a long time,” he said.
The restaurant has managed to stay around long enough to become an institution of the Frederick dining scene.
“Ten years ago we were old-fashioned,” he joked. “Now we’re classic.”