Ah, the steakhouse. What better dining experience for those of us who love beef is there?
Steak. Cooked to order. Brought to you, and placed right under your danged chin. The only thing they don’t do for you is chew it. It comes with two sides and you get a drink. Sit there and savor and sip, and I tell you, life doesn’t get any better than that.
Now, it’s been a while since my wife and I could spare the dang-near hundred bucks to go to a low-end steakhouse, never mind the top flight ones like Pete Miller’s, Morton’s or, if God is willing someday, Ruth’s Chris. Someday soon, babe, I promise, but for now we have to settle for our low-end options. One of them is Lonestar.
I’d never eaten at a Lonestar restaurant until I went there with my beloved. I think our parents, either hers or mine and I honestly don’t recall which, took us there when they came to visit. The food was amazing – how can steak not be amazing? It melted on my tongue and left me endorphin-loaded and full. I, myself, opt for the marbled Texas Ribeye when I’m there. Large cut, please, thank you.
So on Saturday, early evening, I took my loving spouse, who hasn’t had a good meal out in a very, very long time (yes, it’s been years since she’s had a steak or something not wrapped in paper) to the closest Lonestar for a nice meal.
The place was sort of empty, but it was early yet. Not quite four-thirty, I believe. Those taking a meal at that time were older or had children, so we were in good company. We don’t go out much, even when we have the money. We’re not fond of crowds and noise, so by nature we stay away from places where both are likely to occur. The less-than-stellar member of the hostessing team sat us and a few minutes later, our server appeared to take our drink orders. No crowd issues at that moment; we had a corner booth and a friendly, quiet girl named Ashley for our waitress, with a great smile, soft-spoken manner and an angry red zit the size of a penny on her right cheek, just below her pretty green eyes.
After Ashley whisked away into the bowels of the restaurant, I opened my menu to look at the luxurious array of mouth-watering delicacies. Instead my jaw unhinged and I stared bug-eyed at the first thing I saw.
Fal saw my face. “What?” she said. “What’s the matter?”
“Look at the menu,” I managed. “Just look.”
She opened it. Her eyes grazed over both sides. “What?”
“Pick a steak. Any steak, doesn’t matter. Read the very first line of the description.”
Her eyes opened wider too. “Oh…oh my God. You’re kidding, right? This…this is a joke, right?”
There, in bold typeface, proud as you please, looking for all the world like it’s some kind of selling point, are the words USDA Choice.
Uh…I beg your pardon? Are you kidding me? You’re going to have the audacity, the gall, to serve me a steak, and charge me $20 for the privilege, and it’s going to be the same grade of beef I can get from any grocery store?! What’re you, high? drunk? stupid?
Now, to be fair, demand for the best beef is up and supply down for a long time. Loving spouse and research maven found an article from 2005 which indicates The Wall Street Journal was onto the trail of beef-swapping even then. But having eaten both prime and choice meat, I know the difference – I know the difference blindfolded. And I can tell you in years past Lonestar wasn’t serving lower-grade beef. Matter of fact, I ate there in early 2006 or late 2005 and, at that location at least, I got one of the most tender and flavorful steaks I’d eaten anywhere. I walked away feeling my money was well-spent and couldn’t wait to do it again.
The last time, however, I was much less impressed. It had to be 2008, early. After March but not too much so. I think we went there to celebrate a new contract job after four months out of work. I remember not being pleased, but I thought it might be because I was tired (4:30 a.m. comes early). But now I know Lonestar started this practice of serving lower-grade meat quietly, without much fanfare. But a lot of places still say they have “prime” beef. This, however, is very different than saying you have USDA Prime. THAT’S a grading scale. Just saying it’s “prime”, meaning “really nice stuff”, is used as a description. This is dirty pool, in my book, because having USDA Prime beef is what draws steak-lovers in and gets them shelling out cash. Offering them Choice grade instead is, if you’ll pardon the pun, bullsh!t.
I’m not a food critic, but I am something of a foodie, and I know what the difference is in flavor and cost between Prime and Choice. And God help you if I ever find a chain of anything, grocery or otherwise, offering Select grade meat. It all sounds like the upper echelon of butcher options, doesn’t it? Prime, Choice, Select. Heck, it even seems a little backward at first glance. But the fact is, Prime represents about 3% of all beef served, and places that serve it are going to charge premium prices for it. You’ll get Prime at five-star hotels, resorts, cruises, and top-notch steakhouses. But alarming though it is, you might not be getting Prime grade even at places like Ruth’s Chris anymore. And they’re not telling you that.
So I sat there, staring at this revelation, my temper seething. I wanted to get up and get out, walk away. Instead I stayed to give my wife something good. It didn’t pan out. She got a steak I could’ve gotten at Walmart and cooked better for her myself. Or I could have shelled out the money to go to the Prime butcher down near where we lived back when Lonestar still served Prime beef and gotten a Prime-grade ribeye steak for her and cooked it myself. I know how she likes them done, and she’s never failed to fall out of her chair for my grilling even when the meat wasn’t stellar.
I walked away from that table in Lonestar having left Ashley a generous tip, having left my boxed leftovers behind, and knowing I’d never be back. Not unless and until they start serving USDA Prime, not just prime-‘cause-we’re-trying-to-trick-you, beef again.
In the meantime, I’ll save up for when I can take my beloved to Pete Miller’s, or get to that Prime butcher down the road and get some real, USDA Prime steaks to cook for her.