I turn 30 years old next week on Monday, for whatever that’s worth. It’s a landmark, I suppose. In any event, my wife asked me what I’d like to do for it, and whether or not I’d like for her to have a party in celebration.
I told her, “Sure. I’d love to, that’s very thoughtful.”
When she asked what I’d like to do, I decided that I’d like to get a steak at, arguably, the greatest place in town.
For those of you townies who have lived here for at least 20 years, you might already be thinking: a steak at the greatest place in town? He must be speaking of the Ribeye, on Neil St.
And if you’re a townie like me, you wouldn’t be wrong to assume just that. The reason is simply because of their locally produced commercial, both televised on WCIA Channel 3 and on the radio by WDWS 1400-AM.
The commercial is perhaps the greatest commercial jingle to ever be produced in the greater Champaign-Urbana area; it’s so recognizable that even my best friends can still recite the lyrics on call without having even so much as thought of it in years.
I tested that notion out, too, on five friends of mine. Four of them remembered the whole thing. Three of them imitated the saxophone outro as well. And the other not only remembered it all, but even knew about the secret, middle verse, only heard by those from a certain era of its life on TV.
But more on that later; for the moment, have a look at the commercial in question. This is a camera phone recording of the commercial, taken from a 1989 Flyin’ Illini game against Iowa. Please pardon me for the lack of quality:
If you couldn’t hear the lyrics, let me give them to you:
“The Ribeye has the best, the greatest steak in town. Once you’ve had a taste, you’ll know it’s the best around.
The Ribeye is the best, we’re the one — the great one steak place!”
But it’s not. It’s not even close. In fact, it’s terrible, especially when you consider the price you pay for it.
Years ago, when I still wrote for that other “community magazine,” I was accused of helping to crumble a failed local business — by its owner. He based this allegation upon the fact that I made a few suggestions in my column about how his business could be improved, even after the business in question had closed. As a result, and despite the fact that I still shake my head in disbelief at his ignorant and outwardly idiotic accusation, I decided that I would no longer write anything about any local establishment unless it was positive.
The old adage, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all” was to be my new motto.
And for the most part, I have held fast to it.
But I am forced into honesty here, and for one very distinct reason: nothing I state about The Ribeye is going to dismantle its standing here in Champaign-Urbana. It is an institution. It is as solid as the Alma Mater or as steadfast as the Brass Rail. It needs no positive publicity from an online magazine like ours, or a rave review from that one human being that blogs about food in this town.
Admittedly, until recently, I’d never been into The Ribeye for a meal, despite having listened to the jingle for years, and even acknowledging it as simply the finest of all local commercials ever.
But I was never worried about it. I knew I’d get there some day. It will always exist, and do business. Good business, likely. It has a loyal following of people — Illini fans and Republicans, mainly — and they will continue to patronize the now-historic and nostalgia-filled restaurant without fail.
But these are people who, evidently, do not understand what makes a truly delicious steak.
The Ribeye, despite the commercial and its message, does not have the greatest steaks in town. In fact, you’ll do better at an Outback, or Longhorn. At the least, both of these chains have a basic understanding of how to not only prepare one, but to serve it properly as well.
But quite honestly, I knew this walking in for the first time. Because of the visuals in the commercial and the aforementioned hidden verse, I could’ve told you what I soon learned to be a fact.
It’s in the secret verse. It’s one that only very few know, and only a handful of people seem to have ever heard, and here it is. Try to apply the same melody in your head, as you sing it:
“Your last delicious bite, is as hot and good as your first.
If you’re thinking steak, you won’t find a better place.”
You see, they’ve admitted their ignorance about steak preparation and service within their very own commercial. For a steakhouse to claim that “your last bite will be as hot… as your first” is to denigrate the process in and of itself from where I am standing.
And here is why:
A great steak should never be served truly hot, especially when it’s ordered properly at a medium rare temperature: 140-145 degrees.
In fact, it’s flat out impossible; it’s beyond the laws of physics.
Even a steak cooked medium — which is a questionable way to order a truly delicious steak as it is — won’t be piping hot. It will be 155 -160 degrees. And while that is likely steaming initially, it shouldn’t be hot when it gets to the table.
And god forbid it would still be hot by the end of the meal, it would likely taste terrible.
And it did. The steak was terrible. All $20.99 of it. Terrible. Seriously. Not even close to good.
But they aren’t liars. My last bite was actually and truly as hot as my first.
And this is the reason: they bring it out to you on a scorching hot skillet, which continues to cook the steak well after it should have been finished, and resting for at least 5–7 minutes.
And there’s the downfall. As you can see in the photo above, the blood from the cut is still pouring out of the steak. It’s not cooling off, as it should be — it’s actually getting hotter! Vile skillet!
It’s an amazingly horrible concept in beef preparation, and yet, Rick Winkel-loving Illini fans and their kids pile into cars to wolf it down each week, without thinking twice about the fact that A) the steak really isn’t all that good, and B) they’ve been subconsciously suckered by the finest local jingle in the history of C-U marketing and advertising.
Listen. I get it. Nostalgia drives people to do a lot of things. I just bought a green light bulb for my outdoor porch light in hopes that the upcoming Christmas season will be just a touch more jolly. My father, brother, and I still go to Bruno’s in West Lafayette each time we take in a Purdue game, despite the fact that A) it’s terrible and B) it’s significantly over-priced.
But we just can’t help it. It feels right in our hearts, even if it doesn’t feel good in our stomachs.
I do feel bad about having to be so honest about a locally owned restaurant, especially one in which I hold such a special place in my heart; I truly do love that jingle. But the sad truth is that they just don’t get it. This is not the way to prepare a delicious steak. For those of us that truly appreciate a tremendous cut of beef, cooked properly and served as such, it’s almost mildly insulting that they’d name the restaurant after one of the finest cuts — a well marbled, and hearty one, right from the best, and most tender part of a steer: the motherfuckin’ ribeye.
Perhaps one day I’ll go back, and things will have changed. But I doubt it. A friend might have his bachelor party there upon falling in love with his second or third wife, and I’ll be forced to attend. And the truth is that I wouldn’t be all that sad. I actually did enjoy my time there. Just look at Robert, tastefully preparing a piece of bread with butter. He was having a great time. We all were.
It does genuinely seem like a decent place to relax after the Illini down another opponent. The air is thick with sentimentality, and it truly feels like Champaign. I love it here in this town, in case you didn’t know it yet.
But the jingle doesn’t ring true. And for me, that’s a small sadness that I am willing to live with, because I have to. I am staying right here in Champaign-Urbana for the long haul, and as far as I can tell, so is The Ribeye.
I just can’t recommend it to you.
As for me, we’re going to Alexander’s Steakhouse on Neil, closer to the mall. Call me a steak snob or whatever, but at least I know I’ll be getting a great steak. After all, I get to cook it myself.