One unlikely destination keeps folks from all over the country hungry for steaks, pies and nostalgia.

A visit to York Steak House jolts the senses. The smell of grilled steak and cedar surrounds the aging restaurant at 4220 W. Broad St. Guests are greeted with giant, pre-Instagram glossies of each entrée—most of them featuring grill-marked meat, a buttered baked potato and a roll. A familiar, cafeteria-style setup features individual desserts marked with plastic signs, stacks of bowls for the salad bar and two registers at the end.

The dining room itself is a peek into how America once viewed royalty: a dark wooden castle of nooks, wall sconces and 50-year-old furniture. And the salad bar showcases telltale signs that York is a remnant from a different era: Fruit dishes are pre-cupped, with plastic wrap over each serving, and nestled next to the salad dressings is a bowl of vegetarian bacon bits, a relic that this writer hasn't seen in public since the days of Molly McButter. Televisions, alcohol, gluten-free menus and electronic on-table ordering devices are noticeably absent from this family restaurant. But some things—like happy customers and owner Jay Bettin—are ever present.

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I'm sitting at York at 2 p.m. on a Saturday, and Bettin is occupied. On this particular day, he's helping a group of 25 blind customers. I peer over my steak tips as he delivers individualized salads to each customer, a task outside the typical operations of this cafeteria-style restaurant. As he rushes by my table to serve another set of salads, he apologizes for not being able to meet. I don't mind. Any trip to York brings me back to my childhood, a priceless gift for a small inconvenience.

On any day, Bettin is pastry chef, line manager, server, greeter and even train conductor. (I once saw him fix the restaurant's holiday train display after a lunch rush.) Bettin takes a hands-on approach to keeping his restaurant—the last York Steak House—thriving.

The Building Blocks

In 1966, prompted by Ponderosa's success and a realization that they had the know-how to pull off something similar, Eddie Grayson and Bernie Gros opened a steakhouse on Morse Road. A combination of Gros' restaurant background (he was a French-trained chef who would later open B.G. Salvi's) and Grayson's retailing history gave York the foundation to grow. The two planned every detail of the experience, from yelling orders to the line chef in French (it's more exotic) to placing desserts in the front of the line (before customers' trays filled up with other choices) to ensuring that the booths had rounded corners (so people wouldn't hurt themselves when getting up). The pair opened five restaurants in Columbus before settling on their most successful growth strategy: opening in tandem with shopping malls with the help of Grayson's brother Howard. Gros oversaw restaurant operations while Eddie Grayson handled merchandising and expansion strategy. Grayson, who turns 94 in March, says his experience in the shoe industry gave him a customer-first perspective, and decisions around the restaurant were based heavily on customer data and responses. By the time the pair sold the restaurant chain to General Mills in 1976, the outfit had grown to more than 150 locations—all in malls east of the Mississippi River. In the late 1980s, General Mills sold off its restaurant assets to an outfit that would eventually become Darden Restaurants (known for Olive Garden and Red Lobster).

As part of their agreement with General Mills, the founders continued to operate the restaurants for a few years, ensuring a smooth transition. Despite these measures for stability, a rapidly changing retail environment put York's mall foothold at risk, first with the addition of food courts, and ultimately, with the fading popularity of malls themselves. As traffic into York dwindled, the franchisees operating the restaurants began to close them.

Enter Jay Bettin.

Bettin started working at York's West Broad location in 1980 as a manager trainee when he was 21. “York could never make enough money for [General Mills],” Bettin remembers. “They saw these malls all dying off. They probably closed half of them in the mid '80s. You'd turn on the news and hear, ‘Twenty Yorks closed today.' ” In 1989, he purchased the West Broad location from a franchisee and renamed it “Jay's York Steak House” until the original name was no longer trademarked.

Bettin kept to the original vision and returned to the restaurant's original, higher quality suppliers. (He did choose to keep the salad bar that had been added by General Mills.) Other than updating lighting fixtures, the infrastructure has mostly remained the same. “It's a challenge to keep a 50-year-old building running. Bob Evans across the street basically bulldozed their building and started over two months later. I can't afford that. I have to make it work,” he says.

He did make one substantial change to the restaurant. Taking the skills he'd learned while working at a Grove City bakery as a teenager, Bettin started baking many desserts in house, expanding on York's dessert presence. Twenty-five to 30 percent of the restaurant's customers order dessert, well above the industry average of eight percent, says Bettin, who personally bakes close to 800 pies for Thanksgiving and up to 900 cookies a day during the holidays.

The Elephant Across Broad Street

York sits across from the abandoned Westland Mall. It can't be missed. But York's initial traffic wasn't dependent on the mall. General Motors and Westinghouse also had factories in the area. “After they closed,” Bettin recalls, “the West Side lost its heartbeat.” It's the Hollywood Casino—and the improvements surrounding it—that have recently brought new life. “I have benefited from the casino more than any other business around here,” he says. “A lot of people are coming from areas that used to have a York Steak House. Next time they come in, they'll stop here.”

Despite the area's economic struggles, Bettin's restaurant is nearly always busy. He believes it's because York is a destination. “You leave your house knowing that you're headed to York,” he says. “People come here from all over the country: Maine to Texas to St. Louis to Florida. People come in during their vacations and make road trips through Columbus. The first thing they always say is, ‘Please don't ever change too much.' They love the feeling that they had when they were a kid.”

The Cult of York

York's fervent fan base is made of customers and employees alike, and it's common for online “York alumni” groups to make pilgrimages to the last York left in America. Pittsburgh resident Donna Steff visits York every time she comes to Columbus. “My husband and I had one at our local mall growing up,” she says, “[The last York Steak House] is exactly as we remembered it.” And to many local residents, it brings back memories of special occasions. “As a kid, it was one of the few places we went out to eat,” says Chris Hutchinson of Hilliard. “[York] was living large for us. It was always amazing to see food being cooked to my order and to get the pudding for dessert. It was an experience.”

“It's a cult. It really is,” says Bettin. “There were more than 170 York Steak Houses at one time. If you worked at one, it was a social thing. You worked hard and you partied hard. And for families, it was an affordable luxury. You could get a $1.99 sirloin strip with a baked potato and roll. [Today that would cost you $11.69 with a salad.] For $1.99, you could take your family to a steakhouse all of a sudden.”

“Many of us that have worked there for a long time also have full-time jobs,” says server John Hamilton, who started working at York in 2007 and is a full-time teacher. “I continue to work weekends because Jay treats us so well and because I like the people I work with. Jay treats us like his own family.”

The Secret Ingredient

What's the formula that keeps the love for York so strong? Founder Eddie Grayson's core beliefs could provide a clue. “The key to the success of any business is related strictly to the people that operate the business,” says Grayson, who lives in a senior living facility in Gahanna. (Grayson says he celebrated his 90th birthday at York and wore a crown on his head as the “King of York.”) “We were very concerned when we hired somebody, we looked into their background. We wanted to make sure we had the right people, because the right people made the business.”

Near the end of a conversation I had with Bettin, he reflected on a meal he had recently at Ann & Tony's Restaurant, an Italian-American institution in West Jefferson, Ohio. One heartfelt comment he made suggests that he's one of those “right people” that Grayson had in mind.

“I ate at Ann & Tony's last night. The owner is still running that restaurant at the age of 77. That may be me someday,” Bettin says, pausing to contemplate. “The best compliment I can get is that people love coming here, they love the restaurant, and they love the staff. Then I know I did my job.”