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Steak Out

The closing of Walt Bodine's Steakhouse means there's one less bad steak in town.

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Steak 'n' wail: I'm sure I wasn't the only one crying crocodile tears when the 11-year-old Walt Bodine's Steakhouse closed its doors in August as part of the Hotel Phillips' $23 million renovation. During the restaurant's final few years, there was only one word to describe the food and the service: awful.

My last meal in the old-fashioned dining room was such a comedy of errors that it wasn't even worth reviewing. I wrote off the experience as an expensive mistake.

Only slightly worse were the waning days of the restaurant's previous incarnation, the Sir Loin Room, where I once -- begrudgingly -- ate a dinner with the establishment's amiable publicist, who kept telling me what a great, historic treasure the place was, even as the waiter was telling me all of the menu items that were no longer available. It was like the movie scene in which W.C. Fields orders a dish, only to have the gum-snapping waitress take the menu out of his hand and cross off that same dish with her pencil. I think I finally ordered a burger.

My own message to the hotel's owners: Kansas City has enough steakhouses. How about putting in a Walt Bodine's Malt Shop? Or reviving Mrs. Peters' Fried Chicken, complete with its hot biscuits, calico curtains, and gift-shop decor?

A recent trip to a more successful downtown steakhouse, the 51-year-old Golden Ox (1600 Genessee Street), reminded me that its history is intertwined with at least two great Kansas City restaurant names: Ralph Gaines, who founded the 47-year-old Colony Steakhouse, and Paul Robinson, cofounder of the Gilbert-Robinson restaurant empire.

In 1950, Golden Ox founder Jay Dillingham, president of the Kansas City Stockyard Company, put together a terrific deal to lure Gaines away from a Chicago restaurant and become the general manager of the Golden Ox. But while he was still managing the Golden Ox, Gaines opened his own restaurant -- the original Colony -- on the sly.

"He had a percentage deal, and the restaurant was so busy, he was making more money than Dillingham," says his son, Bob Gaines. "So he knew his days at the Golden Ox were probably numbered."

On Christmas Eve 1953, that number came up. Dillingham finally learned who owned his biggest competitor: his own general manager. Calling Gaines into his office, Dillingham asked Gaines whether he had the Golden Ox's keys with him.

"Dad said yes, and Mr. Dillingham said, 'Hand them to the guy sitting over there.' Dad turned and the 'guy' was Paul Robinson," Bob Gaines says.

The Golden Ox has a storied history and a connection to the old stockyards, but the restaurant has rested on its laurels for so long, they've grown flat. The food is bland -- and expensive to boot. On a recent trip there, I tasted one of the toughest T-bones I've encountered, served with a side of garlic mashed potatoes that were barely lukewarm and made with so little garlic that a vampire could have gobbled them up.

On a happier note, I had one of the least expensive -- but superb -- little steaks in town at the last remaining Longbranch Steakhouse (9095 Metcalf, Overland Park). It was a tender, juicy 6-ounce filet mignon for $12.99, served with a twice-baked potato that was hot and sinfully loaded with cheese.

And for twice-baked couch potatoes, the Longbranch even delivers its grilled steaks. Why settle for a TV dinner when you can have real beef along with your Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? -- and not spend a million?

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