Monday, June 6, 2011

Why do some cheap restaurants make you feel cheap?

Posted By on Mon, Jun 6, 2011 at 3:19 PM

Seriously, there's nothing wrong with Ryan's Steakhouse -- just don't tell anyone you saw me eating there.
  • Seriously, there's nothing wrong with Ryan's Steakhouse -- just don't tell anyone you saw me eating there.


Even worse, some low-budget restaurants are so embarrassingly awful, I almost feel like a whore eating in them. It isn't just that they're cheap: They're bad and cheap.

The nadir of my culinary life was when I was so broke in the 1980s that one of the few places I could afford to eat was at Wendy's, back when they had a modestly appointed salad bar. In addition to the chopped lettuce and the vegetables and the sticky-sweet salad dressings, there were taco shells, taco meat and a molten "cheese" sauce that looked like, and had the consistency of, house paint.


After a few months of this indignity, I threw caution (and my savings) to the wind and started eating three times a week at the old Putsch's Cafeteria on the Country Club Plaza -- where Houston's is now located -- ordering the least expensive things on the line. It's why I can never eat chicken a la king ever again.

I even followed actress Shirley MacLaine's advice -- from one of her many memoirs -- on saving money by making an ersatz lemonade by squeezing the lemon wedges provided for iced tea (which I couldn't afford to order) into a glass of water and then dousing the concoction with packets of sugar.

As Pitch readers know from our Steal Plates feature last week: There are artful ways of eating on a budget. But every so often, you have to succumb to the inevitable. A friend of mine was bemoaning the "good old days" when there were cheap "steakhouses" like Ponderosa, Bonanza, and others too horrible to even remember. Yes, yes, I told him: I ate in those places occasionally, but only because I couldn't afford a real steak while I was in college. That is, until I got a job in a halfway decent national steak chain and ate so much red meat for two years that my body rebelled, and I became a devout macrobiotic vegetarian (until I moved to Kansas City and discovered barbecue and Stroud's fried chicken).

My friend, clearly out of his mind, wanted to dine at one of those lowbrow steakhouses. We tossed a coin to see if it would be the Golden Corral or Ryan's Family Steakhouse. The coin settled the matter: We would go to the Ryan's restaurant in Shawnee. It's one of those steak joints where the steak is flavorless and chewy, but no one seems to give a damn because the meal comes with that all-you-can-eat buffet loaded with dozens of greasy, fattening, prefabricated and visually unsatisfying dishes.

click to enlarge fatcityryans.jpg
The buffet had a lot of the same delicacies from the old Wendy's salad bar (including iceberg lettuce salad and make-your-own tacos) and those beloved traditional "home-style" favorites that are staples of most of the casino buffets in town: fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, fried okra, meatloaf in shiny brown gravy, pizza, unidentifiable "Oriental" creations, french fries, mashed potatoes and soggy vegetables. The sloppy "dessert station" was so unappetizing that I could hardly bear to even look at it, let alone contemplate actually tasting anything from it.

My friend practically sprinted to my car after we walked out of the restaurant: "What if someone I know sees me and knows I ate there," he said, somewhat disingenuously. It was, after all, his idea. I was somewhat less embarrassed because I think a little humility is good for the soul. Even a restaurant critic can't eat at new restaurants like Story or Tavern in the Village all the time; you have to talk a walk on the wrong side of the culinary tracks, occasionally.

And I subscribe to the theory of the late fashion editor Diana Vreeland, who once said: "I'm a great believer in vulgarity -- if it's got vitality. A little bad taste is like a splash of paprika -- it's hearty, it's healthy, it's physical. No taste is what I'm against."

 

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