Upon Closer Reading

By Beacon Staff

On a recent road trip, I stayed in a hotel that had a restaurant attached to it through a very long series of hallways, so it was an effort to find it and get to it.

After nearly eight hours of driving, my wife and I were really hungry, but too exhausted to go looking for a restaurant that was more to our liking. We rarely go to franchised theme restaurants, as this one was, mostly because they all look the same, their menus sound the same and the food is just OK. It fills you up but doesn’t really satisfy.

I had noticed as we were driving up to this hotel that the restaurant’s sign featured the word “steaks” quite prominently. I was in the mood for some good beef, so that’s what I looked for on the menu, knowing full well that I could be in for a disappointment. But it never hurts to try.

I found beef, all right, but then I read the smaller print. Below the listings of ribeyes, New Yorks and sirloins, was the description of the meat as “select.”

Sometimes “select” can have a connotation of exclusivity. But in this case, it is anything but.

In grading beef, the U.S. Department of Agriculture gives us, for most of the beef we buy at retail, three grades: Prime, Choice and Select. And that’s the order of quality, too. It’s not as if beef graded select is poison or tastes bad. But let’s call it what it is: it’s inferior beef.

The menu made it clear that this was not a description of the process the chef or meat buyer went through selecting a quality cut of beef. No – it clearly said, “We use SELECT beef…” Menus in other restaurants that have “steak” in their signage make a point of telling you they use either Choice or Prime grade beef.

And while I appreciate the disclosure this restaurant offered, because it stopped me from ordering beef of any sort, I just find it hard to believe that any restaurant would tout their beef if it wasn’t a high quality grade.

This speaks also to consumer education. Do you know how various foods are graded? Do you know what made an egg Grade A or Grade B? Do you know what makes a cut of beef Prime or Choice or Select? Do you know what food processors and manufacturers can and cannot do to claim something is organic, low fat, dietetic, or all natural?

Many people assume that because I am a culinary professional that I am highly critical of every place I eat. That is definitely not the case. I am always grateful when someone else is cooking for me! And I’ve been in the food business long enough to know that every restaurant has an off night, so I’ll always give a place a second chance.

But one thing that I do is that I ask a lot of questions. I ask questions of the wait staff in restaurants and the chef if he or she is available. I ask the produce and meat department people in the supermarket a lot of questions, too. And I have to say that I am becoming more and more disillusioned about the training that many companies are no longer engaging in.

So when I asked my waiter if I was reading the menu correctly, that if the grade of meat they served in this restaurant was indeed “select,” he replied with the greatest of pride, “Yes. And it is the best grade of beef. And our customers rave about our steaks.”


I think I’ll have the ribs.

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