My 21-Day Steakout

Why did I go to the same downtown restaurant for three weeks? Big Klu, that’s why.

You would normally find me in the front row of any pitchfork-wielding mob marching to tar and feather the inventors of AutoCorrect. Is there a more cruel example of sadism than this schoolmarm digitally rapping our knuckles? AutoCorrect’s “intuitive” bludgeon jumps the gun—usually incorrectly—on everything I type. But I’ve now decided to abandon the mob, fall on my knees, and give thanks to AutoCorrect, because I’m about to type Kluszewski many, many times.

Photograph by Aaron M. Conway

As a kid watching TV in Philadelphia, I saw Big Klu play against my beloved Phillies late in his career. I even booed him at Connie Mack Stadium during my first visits there. He had vanished from my memory by the time I moved to Cincinnati in the mid-1970s, so I barely noticed Ted Kluszewski’s Steak House the first time I drove down Walnut Street. Oh, look, another retired ballplayer with a restaurant. Little did I know how mighty a curve ball Big Klu’s beef palace was about to throw at me.

In the decades I’ve lived here, my contribution to Jeff Ruby’s bottom line probably totals under four figures. It isn’t his fault; my reluctance to regularly visit steak restaurants—any at all—comes from a transformative experience that predates Mr. Ruby’s rise to prominence. After all, who doesn’t enjoy the occasional slab of artfully aged and grilled cow flesh served in a fancy atmosphere? It’s just that I exceeded my lifetime quota of steak dinners long before Jeff Ruby came to dominate the local category.

When I first arrived in Cincinnati, steak did not mean Jeff; it meant Ted. Kluszewski was so beloved in this town that when he first partnered with a Walnut Hills steak restaurant in 1958, nobody cared that he’d recently forsaken the Reds for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Customers came anyway. By the time Ted finished his baseball career back at Riverfront Stadium, coaching the emerging Big Red Machine, he hosted five locations on both sides of the river, burning through 1,000 pounds of beef per week.

Big Klu’s restaurants and the Reds were both going strong into the 1970s, but it made little difference to my wife and me. We were busy setting up our new lives in Cincinnati. I’d just started my job at WEBN radio, she was searching around for her own employment, and there wasn’t much money for sports stadiums or cloth-napkin restaurants. For the record, we weren’t going to Pete Rose’s or Johnny Bench’s places either. Just plastic plates and paper bags for us; pull forward to the next window, please.

Carolyn found an administrative job at another radio station, one that posed no conflict with mine. WEBN played really loud songs for young rockers, but WWEZ played really soft songs for old rockers—that is, old rocking chairs. Elevator music, it was called: lush instrumental versions of songs from the 1940s, a kind of Classic Rock for the Greatest Generation. WWEZ’s nap-friendly music came from an automated system playing giant reels of tape, so the number of employees there was small.

All of these details converge in my story, because radio stations and restaurants often converge themselves, doing “trade-outs” of advertising. A restaurant, instead of paying a station to air commercials, often will provide the equivalent dollar amount in meals. Radio salespeople can then schmooze clients at lunch or dinner, and everyone wins. A typical agreement would last one year, with a tally kept of meals consumed vs. commer­cials broadcast, making sure the dollars are roughly equal when the deal expires.

That’s how it’s supposed to work. But then somebody, as they say in baseball, dropped the ball—and it probably wasn’t the restaurant named for a Reds Hall of Famer. One day someone at WWEZ noticed that the station had broadcast about $10,000 more in Kluszewski commercials than it had eaten in Kluszewski food, and the trade-out was set to expire in three weeks.

Let’s do some math. Almost everything on the Kluszewski menu—steaks, chops, shrimp, chicken, seafood—was priced at $5.95 or less. The 16-ounce New York Strip Sirloin (“man-size,” boasted the menu) went for $8. Chateaubriand for two was $12.90, the priciest entrée listed. WWEZ’s manager assembled the tiny staff and told everyone to go as often as they wished, eat as much as they desired, and drag as many friends and family as could stand the repetition. The only rules were to buy alcohol separately and to cover the tax and tip for the full check. Otherwise, Ted’s 1,000 pounds of beef per week was ours for the taking.

And take we did. As new Cincinnatians still recovering from moving expenses, se­curity deposits, and multiple trips to Pier 1, Carolyn and I were primed for all that free prime. To put it in terms Big Klu himself would appreciate: We tore off our sleeves and sat down to the plate.

Every single night, Carolyn and I showed up at Ted Kluszewski’s Steakhouse ready to rumble. We spent several lunch hours there, too. Having no local family and few acquaintances outside of our new jobs, “bring your family and friends” meant that we hosted and fed just about everyone from WEBN for three weeks. As it says on the back cover of Sgt. Pepper, a splendid time was guaranteed for all. One Saturday night, just about the entire WEBN airstaff pushed together some tables and feasted: a phalanx of hippie rockers dining on the dime of elevator music.

Most nights and days, though, it was just Carolyn and me, occasionally dragging along anyone else we could think of. Before the first week was out we’d memorized the menu and knew in advance what we’d be ordering. We and the servers got to know each other’s names. It all became quite folksy; there were almost always familiar faces from WWEZ a few tables over.

We spent three weeks trying to chow down ten grand. The repetition didn’t become as boring as you might assume, as the menu had several choices beyond beef. No, the hardest part of this experience was having to withstand so many consecutive days of wearing decent clothing. Downtown restaurant fashion rules were still in effect in the 1970s, but as someone running on fumes from the 1960s I had “transcended” such rules.

WWEZ’s staff and its circle of supporters, inspired by a deep commitment to teamwork and an unlimited sense of gluttony, successfully wore down the balance sheet with Ted Kluszewski’s Steak House. It was pretty close to zero when time ran out. Three weeks, it seems, was just right. Two weeks would never have been enough, and had there been a fourth week with the win so plainly in sight Carolyn and I would have started to skip days. Nobody else on the WWEZ staff was as diligent—or in need of so many free meals—as we were. Our unbroken streak of 21 daily visits (more like 30 if you count the occasional lunches) will stand forever. Big Klu’s career average may have been an impressive .298, but we batted a thousand.

The era of sports-star restaurants ain’t over ’til it’s over, but its prime years are past. Pete, Johnny, and other Reds vets took their turn, but only Ted Kluszewski packed ’em in at so many addresses for so long, closing his final location in 1978.

When he died a decade later and I saw the outpouring of professional and personal ad­miration for him, I finally understood. I also remembered the time I ordered the double-portion Chateaubriand just for myself, just doing my part to bring down that $10,000 imbalance. Thanks, Klu, for coaching me into becoming a real team player.

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