Friday, January 4, 2019

Texas de Illinois


This empty parking lot ain't big enough for the both of us. 


If there’s a list of the most popular steakhouse themes floating around somewhere, “Texas” is probably quite near the top. Whether you’re enjoying a meal at a Longhorn or a Texas Roadhouse, your surroundings were designed to evoke the beefy aura of the Lonestar State. The ubiquity of allegedly Texan steakhouses served as an unintentional camouflage for the near disappearance of one of their own, Lone Star Steakhouse.

It has only just occurred to me that the odd roofline of the building is meant to resemble the Alamo. 
The first Lone Star opened in 1989 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The chain peaked with around 265 locations in the late 1990s, and was bought out in 2006 by Lone Star Funds, a coincidentally-named, Dallas-based private equity firm. The twin specters of private equity ownership and the 2008 recession were predictably not kind to Lone Star Steakhouse, as the chain has been hemorrhaging locations for the past decade. Today, there are three surviving Lone Star locations in the continental US, plus one in Guam.

I was aware of none of this until recently, and generally regarded Lone Star as relatively healthy chain that was of little interest to me, not unlike the similarly branded Texas Roadhouse. I knew they were separate chains, but the two were very much in the same bucket in my mind. It took a tip from a reader (Thanks Matt!) to alert me to Lone Star’s endangered status. Coincidentally I was days away from a trip that would route me through the Chicago suburbs when I learned of Lone Star’s decline. I had planned to stop at the Joliet Rax for lunch, but cancelled those plans when I learned one of the four operating Lone Star locations was half an hour east of Joliet in Crestwood, Illinois.

I had to kill a few minutes when I arrived at the Crestwood Lone Star, an outparcel at the edge of a large shopping center. I had failed to account for the time zone change I encountered while driving in from Michigan, and I arrived a good 15 minutes before the restaurant’s 11 AM opening time. As I sat in the parking lot, deserted save for a few employee vehicles, I noticed the lot of Portillo’s next door was nearly half full. Soon, it was 11:00, and I entered the Line Star as their first customer of the day.

It's pretty Texasy in here.

The hostess quickly seated me in a booth, and said she was about to turn on the many televisions around the dining room. I told her she didn’t need to on my account, but the many flatscreens were soon showing daytime talk shows, regardless, albeit with the sound mercifully muted. Every bit of theming on the walls was somehow connected to Texas. The vibe of the place felt like it was a couple propane tanks shy of a fever dream you'd have while passed out on NyQuil in front of a TV playing a King of the Hill marathon. I reviewed the menu, and concluded that I did not want a steak. For one thing, it was lunchtime, and I would have felt weird eating a steak for lunch. Also, there was a $3 per side dish upcharge if you wanted side dishes with your steak other than mashed potatoes and mixed vegetables which enraged my inner baked-potato-and-Caesar-salad-loving cheapskate. I also reasoned that steak is difficult to screw up, and I’d get a better idea of the quality of the food if I ordered something a bit more complex. 

When the hostess returned, now acting as a waitress, I ordered a steak sandwich, topped with peppers, onions, and cheese. While admittedly very steaky, the sandwich at least afforded me the opportunity to evaluate the kitchen staff's ability to prepare and assemble the constituent ingredients of a steak sandwich, rather than a steak alone. It came with fries, and I added a side salad. Somehow, this order also came with a basket of hot yeasty rolls, which tasted great, but decidedly Ponderosa-ish, with honey butter. Overall, the food was acceptable, but unremarkable. As I was finishing up, more than half an hour after I walked in, the second customers of the day were seated. Around the same time, I received my bill, and was astounded to see that my sandwich, fries, salad, and iced tea were going to cost me $21 before tipping my attentive, but not terribly busy waitress. 

Does the word, "Yeasty" Make you uncomfortable? Yeasty yeasty yeasty yeasty yeasty!
A perfectly decent, but overpriced lunch


I imagine that this place, like most steakhouses is much busier during dinner hours, and that the menu is more geared to a dinner crowd at a dinner price point. Still, without a viable, cost-effective lunch menu, I can’t imagine they’re turning a profit between 11 AM and 5 PM. The Gordon Ramsay in me wants to scream at their corporate overlords to either come up with a decent sub - $15 lunch menu, or remain closed prior to dinner time, all the while peppering in some delightfully British insults and obscenities.

Or do. I'm a neon sign, not a neon cop. 


If anyone has given the folks in charge of Lone Star such a recommendation in the past, it’s clearly not been heeded, as they’re down to four locations, one of which seems to be open and losing money for half the day. While the staff and food were generally pleasant, the menu and pricing reflects management is out of touch, and perhaps indifferent at a corporate level to this rapidly fading chain. Since my visit to the now-closed Norwood, Ohio Don Pablo’s over the summer, the chain, has shrunk from seven locations to one, down from a peak of 120. The general vibe at this Lone Star felt very similar to that Don Pablo’s. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the four operating Lone Stars shrink to a count of one or even zero a year from now.

These thoughts all occurred to me as I was sitting in that nearly empty steakhouse finishing my midday meal. It was almost too much to bear. After i paid my bill and left, I had to stop by the Portillo’s next door for a chocolate cake shake just to cheer myself up.



For a more authentically Texan retail history experience, be sure to check out my friend Mike's blog, Houston Historic Retail. He recently sought out a broken chain experience of his own at a Frostop drive-in.

Also, if you're a person who enjoys liking Facebook pages, be sure to like the Broken Chains Facebook Page, were I occasionally post bits of extra Broken Chains content. 


12 comments:

  1. I guess soon this chain may be reduced to a.... Lone star. 😛

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  2. Wow, like you, I didn't realize Lone Star had dwindled so much. I'd be mad over that price point too. Say what you want about Texas Roadhouse, around here they don't even open until 4.

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    1. Texas Roadhouse seems to be doing everything right, which is to say, they're doing the opposite of Lone Star.

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  3. There's a former Lone Star near me that's been vacant for years, I think even over a decade at this point. It's in a pretty great location as an outparcel to the local outdoor mall, so I'm not really sure why another operator has never picked it up. Recently (sometime in the last few years) the exterior was repainted, but still no one moved in. The building signs are long gone, but small things such as the logo decals on the doors and a "Lone Star To Go" sign remain. I have a few pictures of those I should really get around to posting sometime.

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  4. Again, Lone Star was another chain I'd never heard of before your blog. Although after some brief Wikipedia digging I did find they hold a relation to the similarly expensive, and vanishing Texas based chain, Texas Land and Cattle.

    Also, thanks for the shout out! It's much appreciated.

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    1. No worries. Near as I can tell, Lone Star had little to no presence in their namesake state for most of their history.

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  5. The Lonestar in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, suddenly closed in early November. It was quietly shuttered. The quality had gone down hill the last few years, but you could still get a decent meal there. About a year earlier a Texas Roadhouse opened in MP.

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    1. That narrative sounds quite similar to several recent Don Pablo's closures.

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  6. My sole experience with Lone Star dates back to a staff Christmas party for the bookstore where I worked (briefly) in the early 90s. At that time, it was as popular as most corporate restaurants, and despite presumeably having reservations, our party had to wait almost an hour to be seated. The steak was mediocre, the seating was uncomfortable, it was loud, and the chief selling point seemed to be that you could throw peanut shells on the floor. An altogether unremarkable, vapid theme eatery that has suffered the fate it deserved.

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  7. My parents met my now wife's parents for the first time ever at the Lone Star in Christiana, DE circa 1998. They bonded over throwing peanut shells all over the floor. Good times. RIP Lone Star.

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