You know the economy’s bad when business is down at Ryan’s

Call it a coincidence: An inexpensive chain restaurant that I almost never think about came up twice in conversations last week. The first time was when a stockbroker — who once had been a regular at Capital Grille — told me that his income had taken such a plunge, he was going to have to start eating at Ryan’s Grill, Buffet and Bakery instead. He wasn’t laughing.

The following day, another friend told me that he had been eating lunch at Ryan’s Grill, Buffet and Bakery in Independence, and the waitress told him that the economy was so bad, it was hurting their business. Say, what? Ryan’s is one of the least costly restaurants in the metro.

I never thought I’d live to hear Ryan’s Grill and the Capital Grille in the same sentence. My frugal friend Franklin told me that the low-budget meals at Ryan’s were ways he was keeping body and soul together.

“You can get a complete dinner, as much as you can eat, for about $13 including drink, tax and tip. If you really fill up, you can even skip breakfast the next morning.”

That was the same kind of logic my grandparents used during the Great Depression, when they chose low-cost cafeterias over nicer restaurants. The food wasn’t fancy, but portions were plentiful, and you rarely had to leave a tip.

So I joined Franklin and snobby Truman for dinner at that Ryan’s in Independence one night. It was a more abundant buffet than I had expected (definitely better than the costlier one at Harrah’s); what it lacked in glamour, it made up for in bulk. And, yes, I’m talking about some of the customers, too.

One of the managers confirmed that business had fallen “a good 20 percent,” until the restaurant mailed out a “buy one, get one for $4.99” coupon and lured back the hungry faithful. It’s a dumpy place, but the food is better than average. Even insufferable foodie Truman shocked me by liking everything he ate. “The fake crab salad is delicious — I’m serious! The pot roast is just like Mama’s. And this steak couldn’t be more tender!”

“That’s not a steak,” I told him. “It’s a pork chop.”

“It is? Well, it’s just as good as a chop in some Plaza restaurant!” But he noted one thing missing, especially for rough times: martinis.

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