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.