The Branding Iron’s owners, Kelly and Laurie Preator, watched their restaurant and bar burn to the ground in March 2019. All they had left were two pieces of wall décor and one branding iron pulled from ash.

The Branding Iron’s owners, Kelly and Laurie Preator, watched their restaurant and bar burn to the ground in March 2019. All they had left were two pieces of wall décor and one branding iron pulled from ash. Nothing else endured — except, that is, the most important pieces: the heart of community, its spirit of support, and gratitude. Hearts burning brightly through ash brought Kelly and Laurie back to the work they describe as the “hardest” they’ve ever loved.

Kelly and Laurie did not grow up around the restaurant business. Each had a very different career before taking a giant leap at Lake of the Ozarks where they staked their futures to good food and customer satisfaction. They found a partner to give them an early start, but they bought him out in the first six months because their food and service were resounding Westside successes.

Now after that devastating fire, the restaurant is bringing back great food and service. The Branding Iron’s meats are still hand-cut in-house, hand-breaded in the kitchen, and smoked on site. Kurt Walker, the original top chef in the kitchen, has returned. He’s making sure the flavors and menu items customers love are the same.

Those favorites include an Illinois tradition, The Horseshoe. For those who don’t know, a Horseshoe consists of the diner’s choice of meat stacked on golden fries and Texas toast before being dressed in gravy or aged cheddar cheese sauce. As Laurie says, it’s everyone’s comfort foods on one platter.

Another favorite is “The Duke” Burger, named in honor of John Wayne and guaranteed to please fans of mozzarella cheese sticks, juicy beef, and crisp bacon. It’s so thick that smart diners will use two hands to heft it before opening wide.

Lighter fare could begin and end with a favorite appetizer, char-buffed wings. These large wings are fried, then brushed with sauce, and charbroiled to caramelize that sauce. They arrive at the table, shiny with glaze and full of spice.

A meat sampler platter is anything but light fare. It’s a full, big platter allowing diners to taste several fine, tender smoked Branding Iron meat choices such as pork, sausage, brisket, and turkey. Although sausage is one of the more popular smoked meats, brisket, and ribs rank right alongside.

What may be The Branding Iron’s best known menu item is broasted chicken — juicy and tender below a crisp, light breaded finish. Served with a side of Laurie’s smoky baked beans or mashed potatoes and gravy, this is chicken just like Grandma made — only better.

Not only can customers count on the same great tastes in the new, bigger Branding Iron, they can also count on the same servers and hostesses. Almost all of the 2019 staff returned to the rebuilt Branding Iron in 2020. Their loyalty and the Preators’ loyalty to them speaks volumes about mutual respect and pride in the product.

At the new Branding Iron, customers no longer compete for parking space. The new building footprint and orientation provides three times the space. Better still are the decks along the front and side, each affording a view of the Lake over treetops. That view will give customers an eagle’s angle of the annual Shootout while their children practice eye-hand coordination with a Cornhole game inside a fenced yard. They can also test their steady hands with a giant Jenga. Firepits outside will warm cool evenings and add a spark to the night’s lights.

The Preators had long wanted to extend dining onto a deck. The fire in 2019 gave them a way to do so. Now Kelly says he wants people to “enjoy lunch or dinner on a 12 x 58 covered deck overlooking the Lake.”

The building is larger, too. Polished concrete floors and varnished wood overhead make the interior gleam. Fire suppressant hardware has replaced the array of Western boots plus one pair of ballet slippers, but safety hasn’t changed the Branding Iron vibe. A few boots outside will bring back an old tradition while owners and customers collaborate to invent new ones.

Two of those old traditions being honored are Karaoke Kelly’s Friday and Saturday night gigs and dancing. The Branding Iron rocks the party spirit.

Adding to the festivities are favorite drinks from the bar: a frothy Peach Margarita packing a punch and the Bloody Mary. Something new is a good local bourbon from Columbia’s Dogmaster Distillery. It joins many of the fine classics and helps define The Branding Iron as a bourbon bar. The Preators also plan to add more craft beer, especially from Missouri brewers.

The newest and best tradition being honored is an attitude of gratitude. The Preators admit they lacked the resources to rebuild. They needed help, and the Lake community gave it. 

Firefighters led the way with emotional support from their own hearts. They also partnered with Bear Bottom Resort’s owners to stage a large fundraiser. Local businesses added to the help by guiding the Preators through the rebuild. Laurie had to act as her own contractor and welcomed their advice and experience. She learned so much that she vows never, ever to build another thing! It’s stressful, but the results make it clear:

The Branding Iron is back and burning brightly with the heart of a community that shared the Preators’ loss and worked to make them whole. Kelly and Laurie won’t forget.