A ‘FINE’ DINING EXPERIENCE

THE ELEGANT TABLE SETTINGS AT SHULA’S STEAK HOUSE DOWNTOWN WOULDN’T NORMALLY BE SEEN THROUGH MY LENS. BUT THANKS TO A TERRIBLE DINING EXPERIENCE, I FOUND MYSELF THERE AGAIN, ONLY THIS TIME WITH DIFFERENT COMPANY AND A WAY DIFFERENT OUTCOME.

Sometimes it pays to complain. At least that’s what I learned nearly two years ago.

My best friend here in Chicago, Amy, was due to get married in the summer of 2008. Five months before the wedding, she had a smart change of heart and ended the relationship. The weekend her wedding was to take place, a few of us girls got together and took a “vacation” downtown.

After a lazy Saturday afternoon in the hotel room, we found ourselves hungry and ended up in the lobby restaurant, Shula’s Steak House. (Not our scene, obviously as we are not 50-year-old businessmen, but it was close and we still had to get dressed to go listen to music at Underground Wonder Bar.) Three hours later, filled with cold soup, wrong orders, raw chicken and a lot of waiting, we all left pretty disgusted.

And at $167, split between me and another friend Laura, who like Amy is a teacher, we all left pretty depressed. (And that was with no alcohol consumption and before a tip.) Thankfully, that was the year I decided to e-mail companies if something was wrong … sort of an experiment if you will. I got $6 in coupons from Hostess after my box of 6 100 Calorie Cupcakes only had 5; and later $5 from Green Giant after I found a quarter-sized piece of wood in my bag of roasted potatoes.

Shula’s? Well, almost a year after e-mailing them, they sent me a $200 gift certificate. And the expiration date was yesterday.

Amy and I never really got excited about going back, I’ll be honest. We would mention every once in a while that we needed to go, even if it was to drink wine and eat dessert. Though we see each other once a week as religiously as possible, heading downtown is rarely what we do … not when all we need is in our own neighborhoods.

Knowing she would be with her family at Midevil Times yesterday, (Hey, it’s her birthday this week, and it’s where she wanted to go for the first time as a joke. And yes, I was way jealous.) I was left with the task of inviting someone else for this extravagant treat. (Or torture, based on previous experience.) Most of my friends eat well, come on now … more than a few of them are gay men, and there is an actor, an event coordinator and a lawyer in the mix. And some of the others have wives at home that feed them or are professional-grade chefs in their own right. (Look, correct usage!)

I didn’t really have to think all that hard, because I knew I wanted it to be appreciated. I have recently started hanging out with two of my neighbors, 20-something guys who are both interns at different recording studios here in the city. And smart boys that they are, any extra money goes to mint-condition vinyl and a new cartridge for the turntable. (Now you know why we have all so immediately bonded. And how I am forever in debt, because I have already learned so much.) So I knew, both being from the South (yes, another bonus) they would jump at the chance for steak.

Oddly enough, even though we were truly out of place this time, it turned out to be a pretty great evening.

And I never have to go back again.

AS I HAD PLANS LATER THAT NIGHT, I CHOSE THE EARLIEST RESERVATION POSSIBLE, SO WE WERE MET WITH EMPTY TABLES AND GREAT SERVICE. TRUTH-BE-TOLD, I WAS HAVING SO MUCH FUN WITH MY DINNER GUESTS, I CANCELLED MY EARLIER ENGAGEMENT TO GO PLAY VIDEO GAMES WITH THEM, BECAUSE WELL … IT SOUNDED SO MUCH BETTER. SEE, THAT IS WHY I NEVER MAKE PLANS.

THE REAL REASON I NEEDED HELP BURNING THROUGH THAT $200 GIFT CERTIFICATE? MY CHOICES ON THE MENU WERE FEW, AND I ENJOYED A BAKED POTATO, SALAD AND GRILLED ASPARAGUS. SHULA’S WOULD NOT GET PETA’S RECOMMENDATION BY ANY MEANS. BUT THEY DO GET A THUMBS-UP FOR THE BASKET OF BREAD.

THROUGHOUT THE NIGHT, I REMARKED TO KIRK, SEEN ABOVE, AND HUNTER THAT I WISHED WE HAD BEEN RECORDED WHILE THERE … SORT OF A “THINGS YOU NEVER THOUGHT YOU’D HEAR AT SHULA’S.” AT ONE POINT, THERE WAS TALK OF “CLUB SAUCE,” WHICH ALMOST MADE ME CRY FROM LAUGHING. (“ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT,” FOR THE UNKNOWING.) IT WAS LIKE HAVING A MEAL WITH MY LITTLE BROTHERS, WHO I MISS DEARLY, SO AN ADDED TREAT, I GUESS.

DON’T LET THE REFINED WAY HE’S HOLDING HIS CUTLERY FOOL YOU … AT ONE POINT, HUNTER EVEN THREW OUT AN UNCANNY MR. BURNS IMPRESSION FROM “THE SIMPSONS.” (AND YES, I HAD HIM DO IT AGAIN, AS IT WAS QUITE SPOT-ON.)

THE REMAINS OF HUNTER’S FILET MIGNON … AND THE MAIN REASON THESE PHOTOS FOR THIS POST ARE IN BLACK AND WHITE. A TAD BIT UNDERCOOKED FOR HIS TASTE, I GOT THE WAITER TO PACK IT UP AND HUXLEY WAS ABLE TO ENJOY SOME OF IT LATER AT HOME.

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