- April 28, 2015
Established in 1973 by Steve and Ward Onstad.
Bar-b-que is a staple in Texas cuisine, and most Fort Bend residents know that there’s a down home, back to basics restaurant complete with its own dance hall that serves some of the best bar-b-que that the state has to offer. They might even know the proprietor and chef behind this great food and Fort Bend institution, but what they might not know is that this GEM of Fort Bend gives, not to one organization, but to many and has for nearly 40 years.
Steve Onstad moved to then rural Richmond as a young boy with his family. The Richmond of Onstad’s youth was not like the Richmond we know today. “Moving to Richmond was a big culture shock,” recalled Onstad. “There were no sidewalks, no neighbors. We learned to ride horses, raise animals, and it was big time to go to Schultz’s store to get a Coke and an ice cream sandwich.”
The barn-shaped house that Onstad and his four siblings were raised in still stands today on FM 359 next to his restaurant, which is a Fort Bend landmark: The Swinging Door. Living in the country taught Onstad many lessons, the most important of which was to help your neighbors. “Growing up, we weren’t just part of a family; we were part of a neighborhood. Everybody knew everybody, and one of the first things my dad taught me was that when somebody was sick or needed help, you helped out. It was standard issue to help your neighbors in times of trouble.”
Onstad graduated from Lamar High School and left for then Southwest Texas State University. After two years of “social studies,” he decided to change course. “Dad said get a job or join the service, so I went to work.” In 1973, Onstad and his dad, Ward, built a small, wood frame business on FM 359 in anticipation of a 1,000 acre subdivision scheduled to be built by Friendswood Development in the area. The development project fell through, but when Pecan Grove sprang up a few years later, Onstad’s business took off.
The Swinging Door opened Labor Day in 1973. “I started out with 12 chairs inside and a little patio. It was a dinky little place, but it was mine. Dad and I built it, and I ran it.”
It wasn’t long before the business grew, and Onstad added on building an adjacent dance hall. His dad was in the Real Estate business at the time, and he ran the dance hall while Onstad ran the growing restaurant. “During the late 70s and into the 90s, we were kind of far out. To make it worth people’s while to drive out, I decided to make The Swinging Door a complete package where folks could eat, dance and listen to live music.”
Much like another large dance hall during the same era – Gilley’s – The Swinging Door became a popular destination for Houstonians including many famous ones. “The Oilers would come out on Thursday nights, sit in the back and hold court,” said Onstad, who became friends with many of the players during the “Luv Ya Blue” days including Dan Pastorini and Giff Nielsen. “I would close off the back of the restaurant so they could sit back there and drink beer.”
The Monday Night Football crew – Don Meredith, Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford – all came out to The Swinging Door, and Earl Campbelll spent the night celebrating after he became a Houston Oiler at the Richmond institution with buddies. “Giff brought the entire Osmond family out one time, and we’ve had our share of politicians and Saudi princes join us over the years.”
Friend Dan Pastorini brought a special guest out one night when he was on a date, and the restaurant was closed for a private party. Onstad led the party of two to the back, and his customers “like to fell out of their chairs when those two walked in.” Pastorini’s date was Farrah Fawcett. “She was just as pretty in person as in her photos and so nice. Moments like that were kind of special to me.”
Other special moments during Onstad’s career revolve around his long list of community service. A past president and member of Rotary Club of Richmond for nearly 40 years, Onstad has made his mark with food not only at The Swinging Door, but at charity events for years. One of the Rotary Club’s largest fundraisers each year is selling turkey legs at the Fort Bend County Fair during the 10 day event, and Onstad is the man in charge. “Steve almost unilaterally gets everything together for our booth at the fair – supplies, food, equipment – literally everything,” said fellow Rotarian and long-time friend Elizabeth Duff-Drozd. “Steve’s generosity and willingness to do anything for the community and our charitable organizations is what makes him special. He’s not afraid of hard work and will roll up his sleeves to help out whenever he can.”
Onstad has been a “Man Who Cooks” benefiting the Lamar Educational Awards Foundation, provided dinner for the Foster and Fort Bend Museum’s events and served up his famous bar-b-que at Reading Between the Wines benefiting the Literacy Council of Fort Bend. But perhaps the groups that have had the most impact on Onstad have been his involvement with organizations supporting individuals with disabilities. Onstad hosted a bowling banquet for Richmond State Supported Living Center for over 10 years. The residents traveled to a bowling alley then out to The Swinging Door for a good time. “To the Richmond State School residents, the event was special. Seeing their joy and watching them so carefree, everyone dancing with no age, race or gender barriers, made it special to me. It was uplifting to watch them and be a small part of their lives.”
Onstad has also catered the ARC’s Best in the West for nearly 20 years, and when he’s not volunteering or running his restaurant, he’s acting as a mentor for the over 1,500 people – many young – who have worked at The Swinging Door over the years. “Impacting youth in a positive way during their formative years is a special thing,” said Onstad. “I take pride in the fact that I have former employees introducing me to their children telling them that when they get old enough to work, this is the first place they would let them work.” Many of Onstad’s former employees have expressed their appreciation as a positive influence on their lives, and some of his employees are third generation employees.
While Onstad has served as a role model to many, his role model was his dad. “Dad was a worker; he believed in hard work and getting it done. That’s how he had to live, and that’s how he raised five kids. We were well taken care of, but he sacrificed a lot so we could have the things we had.”
The Onstad philosophy of working together has translated into the next generation of family. Onstad’s daughter, Michaela Filla, is in the food business with her dad running The Swinging Door at the Fort Bend Country Club. The third generation – Onstad’s three grandsons – love running around the restaurants. “The boys do run the show,” said Onstad of his grandsons, ages 10, eight and six. “Reed, the 10 year-old, is taking culinary lessons at his school. He likes being in the kitchen. It would be neat to get a third generation involved down the road.”
Onstad’s philosophy of service is straight forward. “I’ve always been willing to help out when I could for the right cause, and I tried my best to make a positive difference in the community.” For his willingness to help, his passion for mentoring youth and his 40 plus years of giving whenever and however he could, absolutely! Brazos and Fort Bend Focus Magazines are proud to honor Steve Onstad as a GEM of Fort Bend.
Stop by and see us when you can. We’re always cooking something!
The Swinging Door is a family owned restaurant serving the finest quality 100%, pecan smoked, Bar-B-Q at reasonable prices in a pleasant, rural, family atmosphere.