Photo by Jodi Miller

Life at The Top

“One meat please.”

It sounds stupid, but this might be the secret to lifelong dining bliss.

I can only speak for myself of course, but I am unabashedly carnivorous, and most days involve at least one animal-based protein, which is trying at times. I have a lot of vegan and vegetarian friends—so do you, we all do. Their volume level seems to vary depending on the year, but the last decade was a loud one. I’m not trying to beat up on them, it’s just that I’ve found myself eschewing meat, and even dairy at times in an effort to “clean up my act” but I always go back. Meat is the life that I’ve chosen, and I don’t regret that choice.

But, the dining world is plagued by trends and fads, informed by a number of modern day culinary town cryers espousing the benefits and beauty of whatever element should be on every plate. That new important element, be it a forgotten cut of animal (lot of cheeks happening these days) a vegetable (hello Brussels sprouts and cauliflower), or a heritage grain (whoa whoa whoa, cut that gluten shit out) changes with each new wave. We ride those waves until they subside, washing us back up on the beach that is the familiar, centuries-old tradition of meat on a plate, with a starch and something green.

This is the 4/4 four on the floor rhythm of food that will get everyone stomping their feet and clapping their hands time and time again. It is the familiar tune we still sing, and when the final notes of the culinary Miley Cyruses and Hoziers fade back into radio silence, even your newly vegan friends will still remember the words to that old standard.

The pit barbecue on the side of every southern highway will stand as a beacon for the rest of time, the original owners long gone, but the smoke still rising as it always has. The ground chuck patty of the pub burger that is hitting 10,000 grills at this very moment will still be sizzling in 50 years, seared into the American culinary canon, forevermore. It is at the helm of this fad-proof, time-tested tradition, impervious to the loudest of quinoa zealots, that we find The Top in Bexley. In the same spot, serving the same food, to many of the same people, for 60 years.

The Top supper club, originally opened by Lee Henry, and Bill Sapp, has been feeding and entertaining guests since 1955, six years before the opening of their perhaps more famous, but ultimately fallen Kahiki supper club a bit further East (If only it could have waited for our current tiki rennaissance). To say that nothing much has changed in the following 60 years would be an understatement. The Top is a time capsule of a bygone era that thrives in the modern age simply by ignoring the trends that wax and wane in the world outside its wood paneled walls. It is a study in devotion, and a testament to the staying power of one of our most beloved traditions. To celebrate serving perhaps the most prevalent culinary staple of American History, the same, exquisite way for 60 years, the current owners invited me to experience The Top as it was in 1955, that is to say, much like it is now.

Ever the gracious hosts, upon arriving, we were led to the dimly lit bar where we enjoyed cocktails as our table was prepared. After a few sips of an Americano, and a Gimlet our table was ready and we were shown to our booth in the cozy dining room, steps away from the piano bar where Sonia Modes has played since 1965.

In honor of the anniversary celebration, I was presented with the original menu, complete with cartoon portraits of Bill and Lee smiling on the back. This may not seem like much of a treat at a restaurant applauded for it’s stubborn refusal to change, but there is one little detail that has changed quite a bit since that original menu; the prices, and much to my delight, as I was handed the comically large, elaborately illustrated menu, those impossibly low numbers stared right back at me, a glimpse of an era I could not imagine.

Listed among appetizers of marinated herring in sour cream served with rye bread, chilled tomato or grapefruit juice, and chicken livers, we found our first course, the staple still found at steakhouses across the country: Golden Louisiana shrimp cocktail (with snappy sauce)—all for .85 cents. Or, less than I paid for the Wendy’s junior bacon cheeseburger I regretfully consumed the week before.

The bread that was set on our table was just as free today as it was in 1955, and just as welcomed. The section of the menu entitled “From our Charcoal Broiler” included the Kansas City club ($3.45), the “t” bone ($3.95), the New York strip ($4.65), and the filet mignon ($4.85). Each steak dinner included your choice of wine: red-dry, red-sweet, or white-sauterne (we stuck with our cocktails), your choice of potato (there’s that starch): Baked Idaho with sour cream, curlycue, longbranch, or home fries, and an additional side of vegetables (something green), and all of it topped with a French-fried onion ring, naturally. By the time I had consumed half of my New York strip dinner, cooked to a perfect medium rare with a char broiled carmelized crust that I am still dreaming about, the thought of the dessert section (.40 cents a piece) which included both French vanilla and French chocolate ice cream, seemed like a pipe dream. We managed to put a dent in the creme brûlée nonetheless. When we were presented with the check, it was as if I had already forgotten just how cheap our enormous dinner really was. I stared in shock at the grand total, which barely managed to hit double digits at under $12. What was this amazing paradise I had stumbled into? Was this all just a dream?

Of course, when adjusted for inflation (around 780 percent), the prices today are pretty much in line with what diners would have paid 60 years ago. Back then the parking lot was filled with cars that cost less than $2,000, and the average American salary was $4,418. We all know how inflation works, and yet actually seeing and paying these prices for a beautifully prepared cut of steak is a delight only topped by the fact that I managed to schedule this evening on my weekly date night with the girl, a rare win for my bank account. For those of you who are lucky enough to experience this throwback pricing in all of its glory, there is no question that your wallet will thank you (please don’t forget to tip in current dollars), but in the end, I’d gladly pay the 2015 price for what we ate that night, and if I don’t stop dreaming of that steak soon, I probably will next week. After all, despite all the trends, not much has changed in the dining world. In the 1955 version of The Top, each booth was outfitted with a phone for the important phone calls of politicians, who were frequent guests.

In 2015, each person is outfitted with a smartphone for important Instagram photos of their #steaks. But those perfectly cooked, juicy steaks are still the same meat served on a plate with a starch and something green. The same as it ever was. The same as it always will be.

If the thought of gorging yourself on some of the best food the city has to offer for less than your last meal at a diner is something that appeals to you, then you just might be in luck. Send them your Top stories and photos for the chance to win an opportunity to order from the 1950s menu. Two winners will be chosen each Friday throughout the month of April.For more info, head to thetopsteakhouse.com.

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