The Columbine claims to have been "nationally known for fine steaks since 1961" — since my dad was the age that I'm remembering being, standing in its back parking lot almost fifty years later. It is a survivor, the kind of place they don't make anymore, that no one has made in decades: a steak diner, a pure-strain joint, with a faded and smooth-worn dining room in front and a dim lounge in the back with a bar, a juke, a few booths and bottles of old-man liquor in the racks like a museum of classic alcoholism: Canadian Club and Ballantine's and John Powers Irish. It is menu service in the lounge, short-order up front, with an abbreviated stretch of bright aluminum counter the color of a new Airstream and a cafeteria setup. You look at the menu hung above the two cooks working the grill and just tell them what you want: T-bone, tenderloin, New York or porterhouse, plate of shrimp (shades of Repo Man...) or burgers or fries. Pay at the register five feet away — cash only, no checks, no plastic. Then wait.
When I walk in the front door, the dining room is running near-capacity, and two cooks are working the grill like it's said something nasty about their mother. They have close on twenty steaks already mapped onto the grate, putting some to the flame, others holding warm and par-cooked.
"Getcha?" asks the cook.
"T-bone," says me.
"How you want it?"
And done. Fourteen bucks and change to the register for my steak dinner and a fountain Coke, three dollars into the tip jar. At this point, the smell is washing over me like rain — smoke rising up, the sizzle and flare of fresh meat being pulled bare-handed out of the cooler and slapped down onto any empty acreage on the grill. I get my drink, grab the second-to-last table, and before I've even settled into my seat, one of the cooks is calling me back: "T-bone, medium!"
For my money, I get a straight iceberg salad (dressing ladled out of inserts set between the cafeteria rail and the short-order pass, no sneeze-guards here) with a little shredded carrot and red cabbage; a thick slice of Texas toast off the grill and soaking with butter; a baked potato in a foil jacket, already split and mounted with more butter — a ball of it, as big as a small scoop of ice cream — and my steak: big enough to overhang the lip of my plate, marked with an inexpert quadrillage but lovely to me regardless. My T-bone is tender except for the twists of fat and gristle near the bone. It tastes of flame and char and blood and meat and history. The potato has soaked down butter like a sponge, and I eat it with bites of Texas toast just because too much butter is never quite enough. Later, I will return for an even cheaper steak, a ten-dollar New York that I'll cut with a rickety, wood-handled dollar-store knife, tear into pieces and eat with my fingers, the meat pressed into torn hunks of Texas toast. And then I'll come back again, collapsing into one of the deep booths in the lounge for cold, happy-hour beers and a porterhouse: top of the menu at fifteen bucks.
No one comes to the Columbine for the service, the artful plating or the charming company. And no one steps into this raggedy, patched dining room expecting a fat, USDA Prime steak-of-the-year slab of beef. You either come to the Columbine because you love the good, cheap stuff — because you remember when most restaurants were like this one, before everyone started putting wasabi or truffles or lemongrass in everything — or because you understand that the difference between paying fifty dollars for a steak and paying fifteen dollars for a steak is mostly about paying for the crowd, the tablecloths, the fine plates and the sommelier's salary. But I like the Columbine for both reasons. I love iceberg salads with blue-cheese dressing out of a plastic jug more than I love almost any other kind of salad. I love baked potatoes that are used mostly as a cover for people too embarrassed to eat butter with a spoon. And I have always loved cheap steaks because, to me, cheap steaks are the only kind that actually taste like steak. Yes, I enjoy a Prime porterhouse or a fat rib-eye, perfectly rare and on the bone. But because of the way I grew up, those heroic cuts of incredibly expensive cow flesh taste more like luxury and fat-ass braggadoccio than they do steak. I am always faintly embarrassed when I walk into a serious steakhouse, knowing good and goddamn well that I would not ever be in that restaurant were it not for this job.