In college I was always broke and ate very little meat. Ironically, I spent my freshman and sophomore years working at a prime rib restaurant called, of all things, The Gentleman's Choice. As I couldn't actually afford the beef dishes we served, I usually ate a free house salad and bread while escaping the cigarette smoke in the kitchen during my breaks. Since serving slabs of prime rib at The Gentleman's Choice, I have eaten at a prime rib house only twice. This is partially due to the fact that I try to eat only grass-fed beef, and there's nary a prime rib house that does that, and also because steakhouses aren't my cup of tea.
My first prime rib experience after waitressing at the Gentleman's Choice was about ten years ago in Santa Cruz. While visiting with my family, my Dad insisted we all eat at the Hindquarter -- yes that is really the name -- because, according to Dad, "Nothing else looks good." I rebelled by ordering fish, which was dry and tasteless. The next occasion was last weekend when I was visiting our friends Mark and Margaret in San Diego and they wanted to use a gift certificate they had won for Red Tracton's in Del Mar, a 60-year old landmark from the days when Hollywood icons like Bing Crosby and Jimmy Durante came to watch the ponies.
As soon as I entered the building and walked up to the hostess stand next to the bar, I was thrown back to my days serving at The Gentleman's Choice. The décor was dark, the room smelled like beef and butter, and there were old white retirees everywhere drinking cocktails. The only thing missing were the wafts of cigarette smoke, which I am sure would have been there had it been legal.
Under normal circumstances, I try to purchase and eat only grass-fed beef. But what do you do when you're faced with a social situation that is in disagreement with your general food philosophy? Do you walk out and say, "Sorry," or do you stay mum and participate? I suppose the answer to this question depends on how vehemently opposed you are to what's being served. A vegetarian in my situation most likely would have walked out (and rightly so), but as I eat meat, this seemed a bit extreme. So as I was handed the menu, I thought "when in Rome," and put my personal beef ideology in a little mental box in the back of my head. This seemed the best thing to do, particularly as I had learned a very important ordering rule years ago.
While driving cross country a year after graduating from college with my dearest childhood friend Margaret and her husband Mark, we stopped in Monahan, Texas for lunch. Margaret's black curly hair and her husband's dangling cross earring stuck out in the little diner just as the ten-gallon hats on the male diners would have on Haight Street. As Mark ordered his hamburger, Margaret and I decided on turkey sandwiches. While Mark devoured his juicy all-American meat patty, Margaret and I picked the grayish turkey with a big black vein down the middle from between our sliced bread. Mark looked up and said, "We're in Texas. Just get the burger." Words to live by.
It's easy to be a food snob in a steak house. There is no magic behind the dishes; no culinary expertise; and no tantalizing use of fresh ingredients. There are just large slabs of Grade-A beef (industrial food complex beef at that), lots of butter, and mayonnaise-based salad dressings. But I had learned my lesson in Texas and so realized I should just embrace the situation.
The gift certificate covered the price of two full prime cuts. Just one of those babies could feed a family of eight easily, although Mark and my husband handily finished most of their dinners plus a good portion of the chocolate cake afterward. I opted for the huge iceberg lettuce chunk with blue cheese and a much smaller steak. Did I enjoy my dinner? Not really, and I actually felt a little sick afterward. But did I hate the experience? No, and here's why.
It's simply more fun to eat up and drink your wine, than complain or walk out, especially when someone else is using their gift certificate. The Red Tracton's (or any Gentleman's Choice equivalent) is not my restaurant of choice, but we there for the great company, not the food. I can pretty much guarantee you that I won't be eating in another prime rib house anytime soon, but sometimes it's good to be reminded of your past. And sometimes, when in Rome, it just makes sense to get the prime rib.