Thursday, July 31, 2008

Harvest of shame

Today at lunch, I went to my neighborhood Sun Harvest for a quick grocery run. Upon entering, I noticed all of the checkers were wearing blue shirts that read, “Customer service is an attitude!!!”

Aside from the fact that ending a sentence with three exclamation points is like screaming in someone’s earhole, I’d like to know what kind of executive mind thinks it’s a good idea to emblazon front-line employees with a popcorn fart “affirmation” that never should have left the motivational seminar it was first uttered in. Good customer service is perfectly capable of speaking for itself without the aid of a T-shirt and bad customer service looks that much worse when it’s cloaked in a phony slogan.

Speaking as someone who used to work in a grocery store, I can assure you the only kind of attitude having to wear a shirt like that will breed is a shitty one.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Steak & Ale: 1966-2008

I was waiting on an Austin-bound plane at Dallas Love Field yesterday when I found out from Kate that the parent company of Steak & Ale was filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy and closing every last Steak & Ale on the planet effective immediately.

Although Plano-based MetroMedia Restaurant Group is also shuttering company-owned Bennigan's, that chain will live on through franchisees. Not so for Steak & Ale. Now my hypothetical children will never know the joys of the world's most antiquated salad bar.

The first Steak & Ale was opened in Dallas by future casual dining kingpin Norman Brinker in 1966. At one time, the restaurant was a trailblazing entity bent on bringing Ye Olde Englishe-style steakhouse experience to good working people like you and me. It was also a good place for Seventies high school kids to take dates when Bonanza wasn't serious enough to move things to the backseat.

My first experience with Steak & Ale came in 1975. My folks and I had driven from Dallas to Austin to go camping with a group of families. Unfortunately, the camping excursion got rained out and we wound up stuffed in an apartment watching Evel Knievel jump a bunch of Greyhound buses on live TV from King's Island, Ohio.

When suppertime rolled around, we convoyed over to a Steak & Ale near the intersection of Anderson Ln. and Burnet Rd., just a few blocks from where I sit typing this. I recall the two-story restaurant's exterior gaily festooned with flags and the interior being thematically faithful to the chain's Anglo-happy roots. Our server gave me a paper placemat to color and I remember getting really into it. The one-trip-only salad bar, which would be rendered pathetic in three decades, seemed positively bountiful to my young eyes.

I occasionally dined at that Steak & Ale once I moved to Austin. In fact, I took the Peenbeets there back in 2002 right after we broke up as a beef-enhanced fin de siècle to our (ahem) career, but Steak & Ale was already a shadow of its former "unmisteakable" self. The restaurant closed a week or so later and became a flower shop.

My final Steak & Ale repast came with Kate in January 2007 in Arlington during an ice storm. "The restaurant was almost completely empty, which made the rancid mix of braying ballads blaring over the PA system all the more disconcerting," I noted at the time, "but I enjoyed my mixed grill and some of Kate’s filet mignon, too."

Fare thee well, Steak & Ale. I raise a glass of something to the medium rare memories of your shuttered remains.

Mangia courts hungry state employees

In the wake of Souper Salad's 1978 price rollback on Monday, fellow civil servant Sharon C. informed me of a deal Mangia is running for state employees at its 3016 Guadalupe location through August 15.

If two properly-badged state employees come into Mangia and order the lunch special (one stuffed crust or regular personal pizza plus soup or salad), you'll get one of the lunches for free. That works out to $3.80 per person plus tip. I'm not a huge fan of Mangia's pizza, but that's not too shabby, kids.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

A souper deal (sorry)

This Monday only, Houston-bred Souper Salad celebrates their 30th anniversary by lowering the price of their buffet to $3.49. That, apparently, was how much it cost to partake of soup and salad in the year of Grease.

Yes, I know there was a play before the movie, but nobody cares. Now go eat your cheap-ass salad.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Good wood for Austin Energy?

A doff of the cap to my fine fiancée for breaking news in this morning's Austin Business Journal about Austin Energy's $2.3 billion plan to build a biomass plant in East Texas fueled by wood waste.

The proposed plant must still be approved by Austin's city council. If built, the plant would account for over a third of Austin's renewable energy portfolio.

Although the ABJ currently has Kate's story behind the firewall, you can get the gist of it by reading the free paragraphs.

A farewell to Denny's

Though it may seem odd to mourn the closing of a Denny’s, I was a bit sad to see the Denny’s on Burnet Rd. next to Northcross Mall assume room temperature last week.

Denny’s may be crap, but it’s just about the cheapest place in North America where you can be served breakfast in a non-fast food setting. I took many $2.99 Grand Slam Breakfasts at the Northcross Denny’s over the years. It was a fine way to start the day whenever there was an obscure state holiday or presidential funeral that gave me a respite from the rat race. Why compete for cheese when you can get eggs, bacon, sausage and pancakes for one low price?

As the waitress refilled my cup with go-juice, I’d thumb through one of those motel discount guides and consider just hopping in my car and driving to some random, mundane destination like Tucumcari, N.M. to stay at a Days Inn for $39 plus tax. Needless to say, this was in the days before $4/gallon gas.

The most fun I ever had at the Northcross Denny’s was on Jonathan Toubin’s 21st birthday back in 1992. Denny’s used to give you a free meal on your birthday before they realized enterprising cheapskates would hit every location in town for multiple free meals.

After an evening of watching Jonathan shock several local bartenders with the news that they’d been serving him illegally for years, a bunch of us crammed into Denny’s after closing time to participate in the free meal ritual. My memories of that early morning repast are foggy, but I do remember bunny-hopping out of the restaurant to the amusement of staff and fellow diners alike.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Don't look, Ethel!

ZZ Top has signed with American Recordings and enlisted Rick Rubin to produce their next album. While Rubin has long been the default producer for mature-stage career resurrection, hiring him makes as least as much sense as continuing to plunder the 25-year-old sound of Eliminator.

I just hope they saw this Yacht Rock-style documentary by Travis Harmon and Jonathan Shockley about Rubin's collaboration with Ray Stevens before signing on the dotted line.

Free Huey!

Back in October, I enlisted with a Huey Lewis tribute band called the New Drugs that was formed by members of the Awesome Cool Dudes, Oh, Beast! and co-vocalist Dustin Boes. We figured we'd do one show at Beerland around Halloween and that would be that.

Then Trevor Middleton from the Yuppie Pricks said they'd like to have us play the release party for their latest disc, Balls. Since Yuppie Pricks and Huey Lewis go together like BMWs and failed S&L's, we had no choice.

Now I'm deferring both work and home life so I can go to "Huey Lewis practice." If you see me driving around Austin this week, chances are I'll be loudly singing along with "I Want a New Drug" just to make sure it's lodged in my brain forever. Such is life in the fast-paced, free-wheeling, laugh-in-the-face-of-death world of paying tribute to Huey Lewis, not to mention "the News."

If you're interested in seeing how this gig unfolds, we'll be playing this Friday, July 25 at the Beauty Bar along with the Pricks and Candi & the Cavities. I think we're on in the middle. There's going to be a hot tub and bikini contest, too.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Shower time

Kate and I made a whirlwind trip to Houston this weekend for a wedding shower thrown by my mom's good friends Patty and Karen.

We were fortunate to have a good portion of Kate's family in town from New England for the event. It was good to see everyone before the wedding, which is now less than 50 days away.

While Kate and the ladies opened gifts, Kate's dad, my dad and I dined at Tony Mandola's Gulf Coast Kitchen in the River Oaks Shopping Center on W. Gray. I had gumbo and linguini doused in shrimp marinara sauce.

Somehow, I made it out of there without wearing any of either.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Your local public library

It took me too many years to avail myself of our municipal commonwealth by using a library card. Why was I purchasing books I only intended to read once when I could be checking them out for nothing? Same with magazines. Why would I subscribe to Consumer Reports when I only make a few durable goods purchases per annum?

These days, an Austin Public Library card is all you need to MasterFILE Premier, an online database that allows you to access content from current and back issues of general interest periodicals, trade publications and academic journals. Hundreds of publications can be accessed, including firewalled periodicals like Consumer Reports, Texas Monthly and the Wall Street Journal. In the case of Consumer Reports, you can download full text versions of articles as PDFs. How cool is that?

While the database is somewhat cumbersome if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for, it is free and you don't have to schlep to the library to get it. MasterFILE Premier and similar library databases can be accessed here.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Bitchin' nostalgia

Paige Maguire at Austinist reports that Philadelphia scruff rock legends the Dead Milkmen are reuniting to headline this year’s Fun Fun Fun Fest November 8-9 at Waterloo Park. Dandrew Stevens will take the place of original bassist Dave Blood, who committed suicide in 2004.

The Dead Milkmen are no strangers to Austin. They name-checked our city’s long-gone cheap rent on “Six Days” from 1986's Eat Your Paisley and recorded three albums in the area with Glass Eye bassist-turned-producer Brian Beattie.

I haven’t seen the Milkmen play since 1988 at Power Tools in Houston, but the Peenbeets occasionally turned to “Serrated Edge” when we needed a crowd-pleasing cover. Like many a dateless high school malcontent, I wore out my old cassette copy of Big Lizard in My Backyard while tooling about H-town in search of a sympathetic convenience store that would sell Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers to underage kids. Good times all around.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Jilted John

This here's one of my all-time pop-punk favorites: "Jilted John" by Jilted John, seen here in a 1978 clip from Top of the Pops. Produced by Martin Hannett and championed by the late John Peel, the song made it to #4 on the British charts.

Sadly, I didn't discover this tune until well into my twenties because I really needed something this novel, biting and pathetic in my teens. On the brighter side, Jilted John creator Graham Fellows built on his one-hit wonderdom with a more lasting musical alter ego named John Shuttleworth.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Wave goodbye to ExpressJet

There's no joy for fans of nonstop flights from Austin on this muggy hump day afternoon. ExpressJet announced today that it will cease operations on September 2 because of high fuel costs.

The Houston-based carrier flew regional jets from Austin to Albuquerque, N.M., Jacksonville, Fla., New Orleans, Ontario, Calif. and Tuscon, Ariz. ExpressJet previously served Kansas City, Mo. and Oklahoma City from Austin, but those flights were cut earlier this year.

Friday, July 04, 2008

America eats!

On our nation's 232nd birthday, we should all stop and remember that America means many things to many people, but it doesn't mean any one thing more than any other thing to anybody. Except hamburgers.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Swimming in savings

Although I’d gone swimming at Barton Springs only once prior to meeting Kate, her penchant for aquatic recreation seems to have rubbed off on me. I don’t think we’ve gone more than a week without swimming since May.

Until recently, every dip was setting us each back $3. Then a helpful Austin Parks and Recreation Department employee at Northwest District Park Pool hipped us to the bargain that is the 80-punch family pool pass.

For $32, you and yours can go swimming 80 times at any municipal (pay) pool in town, including Barton Springs. Unlike the more expensive summer pool pass, this one doesn't expire at the end of the season, either. Interestingly, there’s nothing about this particular pass on the city’s website, but they're available at the pools.

If you use all 80 punches, it comes out to just 50 cents a swim. You can’t beat that with a wet towel.

UPDATE (7/4/08): My enthusiasm for our swim pass has been tempered somewhat by the realization that we're only getting an $8 discount off the gate price if we use the entire card because each adult swim equals six punches, not one. Nevertheless, that's like two whole gallons of gas (for now) in my tank.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Warren Chism will save your marriage

The same bunch of moralists who’ve spent millions on do-nothing abstinence education programs for kids are starting to implement similar initiatives for us grownups.

Starting September 1, the marriage license fee in Texas will go from $30 to $60 unless you and yours take a state-sanctioned eight-hour marriage education class. The state is using $8 million in federal welfare funds to pay for the classes and maintain a registry of who has taken them.

There’s more on the way when the Texas Legislature reconvenes next year. Longtime state representative Warren Chism (R-Pampa) wants couples seeking a divorce to wait two years unless they take a class designed to save their marriage.

While the administration of such classes would primarily be a publicly-financed sop to faith-based organizations, I’d love to see the comedy clubs get in on it. If they can teach defensive driving, there’s no reason our great state’s bastions of belly laughs can’t defend the sacred institution of heterosexual marriage.