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'Unique' in every sense

DETROIT LAKES - When describing the attributes of his newly revamped restaurant, The Avenue, owner Keith Stensgard couldn't help but use the word "unique" in nearly every other sentence.

The Avenue, which appropriately sits on Washington Avenue in downtown Detroit Lakes, got a facelift over the winter and has reopened with features that not many other area restaurants have - "unique" features, as Stensgard would say.

Not only has he used his extensive bar and restaurant background to redo the menu, featuring hand-cut sweet potato fries, hand-pattied burgers that are marinated on the grill, and slow-cooked barbecue pork, he's added games, movies and music features every night of the week.

Mondays are "gameshow" nights where participants can play small versions of "Deal or No Deal" and "Family Feud," and win prizes. Every other week, Stensgard brings in a hypnotist, who he calls "hilarious."

"It's all completely voluntary, but it's great fun," he said.

Tuesday nights go back to the roots of the building, which used to be a movie theater.

Stensgard purchased a new projector for the big screen near the bar, which past owners never used because they couldn't afford a projector to get a clear enough picture.

"I don't even know of one in Fargo that big," he said of the 10-foot by 10-foot screen.

The new "crystal-clear picture" will play classic movies on Tuesday nights (the one next week, for example, is "The Goonies") at 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. and free popcorn is offered.

Although the sports bar section has trivia every night, Wednesday nights will broadcast trivia on the big screen.

Thursdays offer karaoke, with a full in-house dance floor and disco light show upstairs, and all day Fridays feature a different theme where staff dresses up and background music plays along.

One week, for example, Stensgard said they'll do a disco theme, or a 1950s "Grease" theme.

"I don't want to fight the weekend life, so we're offering stuff on the weekdays, too," he explained.

There's no cover charge for the weeknight night-life activities either -- Stensgard just said "it's appreciated if you just have a soda or something."

Stensgard also stressed that he and his staff are open to all suggestions, whether it's for food, movies or Friday themes.

He clearly wants to make the community happy and get them involved, putting his heart and soul into customer service.

"I'm not sure what happened with all these other owners because I wasn't here, but I'm pushing being here 120 hours a week," he said. "I go around the floor myself and visit with the regulars. I can do every job here, and I will. I'll be washing dishes back there if I need to."

He puts his waitstaff through the paces with tests and quizzes to make sure they know the menu, too, because "you've gotta know your product."

"My goal is when people leave and get in their car, they're still saying, 'My steak was incredible,'" he said. "I don't want people to just leave and forget about it."

Quality food and service is the name of his game, and other than that, he just hopes they "can prove why you'd want to come back."

Stensgard has been in and out of the area for 30 years, from Maui, Hawaii, to Phoenix, Ariz. and back to Fargo.

After graduating from college at North Dakota State University with a degree in physical education and a minor in business, he was a teacher in Utah for a couple years, but fell back into the job he loved -- bartending.

"Even when I wasn't working (as a bartender), I'd critique everything at restaurants," he remembered. "'Oh, the waitress should have asked me this, or I like the way they set up their tables,' stuff like that. Maybe that's why I'm pushing for this to be high-end."

Stensgard continued to move around, learning the restaurant trade, and has now hand picked most of the menu after collaborating with other cooks over the years.

"I'm trying to bring a little of everything here," he said. "It's not just your regular burgers and fries."

He stresses fresh ingredients and homemade sauces and batters, trying his best to support local vendors.

The "white maple" dipping sauce, for instance, is a special recipe that is made from scratch every day -- but only by him.

Stensgard is reaching out to those in need, too -- he called up the parents of Nicole Rodewald the other day, the 14-year-old Detroit Lakes girl that recently died of primary pulmonary hypertension, to see what he could do.

Rodewald's favorite food, her parents said, was a hot ham and cheese sandwich, so Stensgard is putting "Nicole's Hot Ham and Cheese" on the menu and donating a dollar from each sandwich sold to the charity of the parents' choice.

When he decided to come back to Detroit Lakes, he knew there was a lot of restaurant competition.

"But there was definitely room for one more," he said. "I just had to find out what else people needed, what was missing."

Stensgard came on board last fall with Goober's, but decided to redesign and change the name ("I swear I went through 10,000 names") over the winter when he took ownership.

Not only does The Avenue feature a sports bar in back, the middle section of the restaurant is now considered "fine dining" and Stensgard introduced a martini bar up front -- the only one in Detroit Lakes.

It opens every night at 6 p.m., and although it hasn't been busy enough to keep it fully staffed as of yet, Stensgard is hopeful that the trend will catch on.

Stensgard has even hired a pastry chef a couple of days a week to make all the desserts, and she'll custom make cakes or other desserts for parties and weddings if they're preordered.

"There's more than one option for people," he said. "A family could come in here for dinner, and if dad wants to watch the Twins, we'll have it on. You could sit anywhere in here and see a TV," with the exception of the martini bar.

In the sports bar and restaurant area, there are 23 TVs.

He's also started offering breakfast from 8-11 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.

Overall, Stensgard has big goals for The Avenue.

"A lot of restaurants around here say 'store up in summer and survive in the winter,'" he said. "I want to keep the same pace as in the summer. I want those lake people from the summer to think, 'I really want one of The Avenue's burgers,' and come down for the evening in the winter."

Stensgard said he enjoys the small-town atmosphere, where you know the name of every person that walks in, unlike the big cities he's worked in before.

"I'm not saying we're perfect," Stensgard said. "But, I believe we're doing this the right way. I'm just trying to find my own niche."