The Range, however, wasn't even a blip on my radar. It's the only "upscale" restaurant at Harrah's North Kansas City Casino and Hotel, and sure, I had seen the place a couple of times on my way to dump a load of tokens into the gullet of a slot machine or to try my hand, miserably, at a video poker machine. It never occurred to me, though, to look beyond the darkened bar area. And that was a big mistake: The Range, which is open only after 5 p.m., might be the only place in this big, bustling casino that you actually get a lot of bang for your buck. On all of my visits, I left feeling like a winner.
I never would have ventured into the place if I hadn't run into an old acquaintance, Joan, who has the regal bearing and tart tongue of her namesake, Joan Crawford -- and some caustic opinions on Kansas City restaurants.
"You haven't been to The Range?" she asked me incredulously. "It's fabulous! So much better than those arrogant à la carte steakhouses."
Joan is the last person I could imagine hanging out at a casino -- I tried to envision her perfectly manicured fingers dropping nickels into an I Dream of Jeannie machine or madly pumping the mechanical arm of a Slotto -- so I took her advice seriously. The next thing I knew, I was wheeling my sedan off of Highway 210 and into the construction mess on the Chouteau Trafficway in front of the casino property. It's The Range, all right: Just making a right-hand turn, I spun up enough dirt and gravel to re-create a scene from Stagecoach.
On that first visit, I took my friend Bob, who is casino-phobic; all those jangly, whirly slot machines give him the creeps. He was happy to be able to walk past the gambling floor and escape into the quiet restaurant. The Range is a faux-Southwestern sanctuary, its walls made of red "stone" and fake adobe, with dead twigs protruding here and there and a nice painted sunset mural floating over the salad bar.
Bob was thrilled that there was a salad bar, although I cast a wary eye in its direction. He's a connoisseur of such things, but as far as I was concerned, any salad bar was a red flag: a lowbrow reminder of those 1970s-style "family" steakhouses, all boasting third-rate salad buffets crammed with soggy fruit cocktail, canned pudding, wilted iceberg lettuce and ersatz dressings.
"The dinners," said our beaming young hostess as we settled into a cozy booth, "include your choice of our premier salad bar or a Caesar salad!"
I rolled my eyes, but Bob raced over to check it out and came back giddy. "It has wonderful things -- kalamata olives, cloves of roasted garlic and artichoke hearts!"
Unfurling a cloth napkin into his lap, he perused the menu as if he were a high-stakes poker player. The Range deals out eight cuts of beef, from a six-ounce filet to a head-spinning double cut of prime rib. When I saw a server carry one of the latter to another table, it shocked my sensibilities: The steak was massive, glistening red and practically hanging off the china plate. There's something completely barbaric about that much meat.