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Tuesday, October 21, 2014
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Published: Thursday, 8/2/2001

Lone Star Steakhouse & Saloon: Same chain, individual differences

In this era of severely functional commercial buildings, the first impression from the Lone Star driveway is that a quasi-formal entry uses up several valuable feet to no practical purpose between the curb and the front door. And parking is resolutely delegated to the rear of the restaurant. Good weather or bad, you must walk around to get a meal.

Older Toledoans may recall the why of these slightly elaborate arrangements. Arnie Nissen, the original tenant, regaled us with such Nordic delights as pickled herring in cream when we came to enjoy his top-story restaurant, the Tivoli. The En Japanese Restaurant was next, introducing us to the great teppenyaki griddle, and today's Lone Star is selling us Texas: beef, grilled or barbecued.

A gifted amateur chef of my acquaintance used to say that it took a rare talent to do something really bad to beef. The flip side, of course, is that cooking a steak to just the right point is not very hard. All it requires is a broiling fire and a timer whose squawk is instantly heeded.

Well, not quite. The Lone Star cooks on Monroe Street - I didn't notice this at the other - need to think about what happens to a steak between the broiler and the diner. It continues to cook, and a cluster of hot steamed vegetables pushes along that continued cooking. By the time the server delivers it to the table, medium rare has become medium.

The Lone Star restaurants both serve fine beef, but on Monroe Street a small filet and a small delmonico arrived, one medium, the other, alas, close to medium well. What part kitchen practice played in these results I don't know, but I was inclined to believe that part of the reason was the long delay between the order and the serving, by a willing but uncertain, one-thing-at-a-time server.

In both restaurants there seems to be considerable turnover of serving staff: Only two of eight I talked with had been employed at one or the other Lone Star more than a week or two. Training in these circumstances has to challenge management, and with just one exception it was my impression that the Airport Highway restaurant was doing it better.

Shall I tell you about my baked sweet potato? A clever, attractive side dish, it was served on Airport with small cups of granular sugar and cinnamon. On Monroe, the potato, sliced open, was hidden beneath a sprinkling of cinnamon and, dumped - the only possible word - on top of that, a quarter-cup or so of sugar. It was inedible. On purpose, or simply careless?

These are little complaints, mostly. But when you go out for a restaurant dinner you have a right to expect that within reason you will not be distracted from the business at hand by an accumulation of little complaints.

The Monroe Street Lone Star has a dark ceiling, almost black, and over the dining area the lights are focused so as not to illuminate large clear circles. That tends to isolate an individual or couple in a small, shadowed intimacy. Except for the loud intrusive music, some people would find that just what they want.

To put my reaction in a nutshell, I would say that a Lone Star is designed to be, as the full name says, both restaurant and saloon. The balance on Airport Highway tilts to restaurant, a place to take the family. On Monroe Street, it's somewhat more a saloon, a place for grown-ups to gather and pound a beer or two.



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