It wouldn't be fair to call Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant (see review) a saloon, though gourmands might insist that the venue's emphasis is squarely on the booze (not just the house-brewed beers but also the $8.25 mojitos, margaritas and martinis) rather than the kitchen.
I've written before about the American tradition of taverns offering a free lunch to encourage patrons to come in, fill up and drink more. My father, a child of the Depression, used to tell me about dashing into saloons in his New York City neighborhood, grabbing a sandwich and a pickle off the buffet table, and running out the door before the bartender could catch him.
But the expression "There's no such thing as a free lunch" dates back to those saloon lunch counters. Yes, patrons could enjoy a complimentary snack at the barkeep's expense, but most of the time, the food set out for the lunch crowd was guaranteed to sell more than one drink. Those free lunches were mostly salty foods: hard cheese, smoked ham, cold sausages, crackers, hard-boiled eggs. After a single plate of this fare, another cold beer didn't just sound refreshing — it was practically mandatory.
I don't think I've ever seen a bar offering a free lunch in my lifetime. But I can remember the heyday of happy-hour buffets, when local watering holes were in such fierce competition for the cocktail crowd that they would set out more elaborate culinary displays than I've seen at wedding receptions.
I can't remember the name of one short-lived establishment that opened near Bannister Mall in the late 1980s, but it might have gone out of business simply because it put out so much free food. The place was kind of a disco (I recall the DJ playing a lot of Madonna and Duran Duran), but I never saw a soul on the dance floor: Everyone was too busy stuffing themselves with all those free fried egg rolls, little pizza wedges, nachos, guacamole, spicy chicken wings and potato skins. "It was supposed to be a pickup bar," says a friend of mine who was a legendary Lothario at the time. "But I never went home with a single chick from that place because I got such terrible indigestion from that damn buffet."