Editor's Note: Whether you're a tourist or an office worker in downtown Chicago, you can get sick of eating at chain restaurants all day. So we've started a series to get you the lowdown on where to find a great and affordable lunch.
Cow, delicious cow. I like cow in lots of ways. Ground cow, smoked cow, cow belly, cow insides, cow ribs, cow face, and of course, sliced grilled cow. And by sliced grilled cow, I mean steak. Now, even though Chicago's has a reputation for fantastic steak, most of those places serve really expensive, special-occasion types of meals—something I can't eat often. But Ronny's Steakhouse serves not only an affordable steak, but an entire steak meal, with baked potato and salad, for eight bucks! What? Really? Awesome!
Ronny's Steakhouse has been around since 1963, and it's a popular cafeteria-style lunch joint located in the spaceship-esque Thompson Center, right at the corner of Clark and Randolph. When I told my coworkers I was headed up towards Ronny's, every one of them said, "Ronny's? I love that place!"
The steak lunch special ($8.00, $0.97 per extra potato topping) comes with a salad, a baked potato, garlic bread, and, the star, an 8 ounce cut of steak. I realize that eight ounces might not be a lot of food for some people, but including everything else, you've got a hefty nap-inducing meal that'll rob you of your afternoon productivity.
You can pretty much skip the iceberg lettuce salad, which comes pre-dressed with cheap salad dressing, none of them terribly good. I would definitely recommend getting the potato fully loaded, and even though it costs extra, a heavy dose of processed cheese sauce, bacon, broccoli, and sour cream makes for a meal in and of itself.
But what about the steak? I will admit that it's not fancy, or even great for that matter. You get what you pay for. This isn't a 45-day aged ribeye by any means. It's a cheap thin cut of meat with a decent amount of beefiness and occasional bits of gristle, which is somehow still satisfying. Maybe it's the price, or the bustling atmosphere, but I can't help but like it anyway.
And an ordering tip: Ronny's almost always overcooks the steak. So if you like your steak cooked a certain way, you may want to order the meat one step rarer than you'd normally order (the one you see was ordered medium, and came out well-done). As you can see by the picture, you can order your red meat with a heap of sweet, sauteed onions, which, being cooked with red bell pepper, take on the flavor of the pepper too.
I ordered the strip steak to see if it was any better, but I ended up receiving the 10 oz sirloin ($13.99 for meal). I didn't really mind; this steak is similar to the lunch steak, but is slightly larger and on the bone. I ordered it medium-rare, and received it medium (I forgot to follow my own advice), though parts of it were medium-rare. The steak did have a blackened char from the grill, and again, was decently beefy and a touch gristly. Again, you get what you pay for. If you want additional flavor, Ronny's also has their own version of steak sauce, which is pretty much a knockoff of A1 Steak Sauce, but a little sweeter and little less tart.
The sleeper hit was the rib tip lunch box ($9.59). You get a huge pile of rib tips, a baked potato, garlic bread, and white bread. They aren't smoked, but grilled, and come bathed in a sweet tomato-based barbecue sauce that coats every single one. The meat is extremely tender and easy to eat, and despite the fact that the sweet sauce is the predominant flavor, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed them.
Now, I'm one of those people who orders unlikely items from a menu to see if they're any good, which is why I ordered the beef burrito ($5.99). I thought it would be hilarious, even though the burrito is sort of hidden on the menu near the salads. But learn from my mistake: Don't order this. If you do order it, you're on your own. The beef was actually chopped up hamburger meat with an afterthought of lettuce, tomato, and cheese. And as I was eating a bit of it, I thought, "Wait, did I just eat a chickpea?" I dug around the inside like a little curious burrito mouse, and sure enough, I found three or four inexplicable chickpeas inside the hamburger burrito. But sometimes, I secretly like it when food you order defies all expectations, and veers off a cliff Thelma and Louise style, even if it's not in a good way.
I've been to Ronny's several times over the years, and even if my steak is overcooked, I always come out feeling like I can't help but love the place. It's just one of those lunch places you remember, and you remember it well. Just don't get the burrito.
About the author: After a failed attempt at starting a chain of theme restaurants called "Smellen Keller," Dennis Lee traveled the world to discover his true passion. Sadly, midwifery didn't pan out. Now he works in a cubicle, and screws around as much as possible. Follow his shenanigans on Twitter.