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Wednesday, April 1, 2009 12:17 pm

Old Lux = old school = delicious

Bridget and Chris Redman with their son, Brennan, in front of the Old Lux.

“A guy goes out to eat in the evening after a long day in the office — he don’t want on his plate something that he has to look and think, ‘What the — is this?’ What he want is a steak. ‘This is a steak. I like steak…. Mmmmm, I’m happy.’”

— From the movie Big Night, set in the 1950s.

America has moved beyond the notion that a steak dinner is the only ultimate dining-out experience. But such Chicago steakhouses as Gene and Georgetti’s or New York’s Peter Luger’s remain as popular as ever. And all across the country, local retro steakhouses continue to thrive because their quality is exceptional and they have a local history and unique ambience that slick national-chain steakhouses just can’t match.

Springfield is lucky to have one of those classics — the Old Lux. Its formal name is The Old Luxemburg Inn, but I’ve never, ever, heard it referred to as anything other than “The Old Lux” — an indication of both the familiarity and the affection with which it’s regarded.

For most of the last century, an evening of fine dining could only be found on Springfield’s east side, excepting hotel dining rooms and private clubs. There were a number of restaurants downtown, but they were almost exclusively lunch spots. Even those that stayed open in the evening were geared to bar food or after-theater snacks, or were diners. Folks who wanted tablecloths, candles and cocktails went east. Two Italian joints — Stevie’s Latin Village and Saputo’s (still in operation) — were closer to the city’s center than the Mill, the Lake Club and the Old Lux, but they all were indisputably eastside establishments. Only the Old Lux still exists in that neighborhood.

The Old Lux has had only three owners since its establishment in 1941, and for the last 17 of those years, it has been run by the same family, Dennis Sanderfield and Theresa Bennett, before, during and after they divorced. Recently, they sold the restaurant to their daughter Bridget Redman (and her husband, Chris), though Sanderfield remains involved.

Nostalgia is undeniably a big part of Old Lux’s appeal. “We have lots of regulars,” says Redman. “I just love listening to the regulars
talking about their experiences here. Some come every week. That booth back there — that belongs to the Jones: they’re here every Friday night like clockwork. And that booth over there — that’s [retired] General Wayne and Sandy Temple’s special Friday booth. This is a place where so many people have come to celebrate special occasions — birthdays, anniversaries. Sometimes it’s a place where folks come to remember. Not infrequently, when a spouse has passed away, their partner keeps coming back — especially on their anniversary — because it’s a way to hang onto memories of dining here as a couple. Recently a table of customers asked if Redman would put up a friend’s photo while they ate. The Old Lux had been his favorite place; they’d come there to eat as a memorial to him. She was happy to comply. On my most recent visit, a man walked into the bar and said he’d just moved back home after living 30 years in Arizona. “Do you still have that prime rib special?” he asked. They do.

The Old Lux is far from just a geriatric gathering place, though. On any given night, the restaurant’s crowd is composed not only of retirees, but also clientele that ranges from young couples with children, to politicians in business suits, folks in work shirts and ball caps, and everything and everyone in between. Nostalgia is all well and good, and certainly has its place, but it’s rarely enough (nor should it be) to sustain a restaurant if the food is mediocre.

Fried lobster tail, a specialty at the Old Lux.

Happily, the food at the Old Lux doesn’t play second fiddle to that retro ambience: the food is part of it, but it’s also very good — and astonishingly affordable. There aren’t any fancy frou-frou ingredients — things thrown onto a plate because they’re trendy, even if they have no relevance to the main item. Steaks are the main attraction. Other popular entrees consist of such items as fried chicken, chicken livers and catfish. The only vegetarian option is spaghetti with house-made marinara sauce. Baked potatoes come wrapped in foil (the chive cheese sauce option is pleasant, but bland; I stick to sour cream), and salads are composed mainly of head lettuce. The servers bring oblong plastic baskets of cellophane-wrapped crackers and Melba toasts when they serve the drinks. Cheesecake is available for dessert, but Redman says that retro ice cream drinks, such as Brandy Alexanders, are more popular.

Then there’s the French fried lobster. I’d been dubious about it. Frying lobster just seemed wrong. I’m a lobster purist: if I can’t have it boiled or steamed, I’ll usually pass. But lately I’d begun hearing things about Old Lux’s fried lobster tail. A friend told me it was his mother’s “most favorite thing!” In February, another friend told me that she and her husband were going to the Old Lux on Valentine’s Day for the fried lobster. My skepticism must have shown, because she said, rolling her eyes, “I know. But it’s just soooo good!!”

Both those women have traveled worldwide and have discriminating palates, so I put my prejudices aside. Just goes to show how limiting prejudices are. The 8 oz. tail is lightly breaded in-house (as are many other items, such as the chicken, catfish and mushroom appetizer) in its shell, which is split down the middle. As it fries, the lobster tail curls up out of its shell, which makes for a dramatic presentation. More importantly, the light breading seals in all the lobster’s flavor and tenderness, and isn’t at all greasy or heavy.

The Old Lux isn’t just surviving; it’s thriving. While it’s possible to walk in on a week-night, Redman says weekend reservations are advisable. She knows that the restaurant’s popularity is only partly because of that nostalgia, aided by the space — wood paneling, and the old mural covering one wall. As big a factor is that they’ve been able to keep their prices affordable. “I credit my dad for that,” she says. It also helps that the parking lot is secure: an off-duty policeman is stationed there during all dining hours.

The menu lists a ten-ounce filet (their most popular item) for just $14.95 — and on Wednesdays, it’s offered as a special for an almost unbelievable $11.95. On weekends, it goes up to $15.95, but that includes a portion of fried shrimp or clams.

What’s really extraordinary is not just that the prices are so low, but that the quality remains so high. A big part of the reason is that they obtain their meat from local suppliers Humphrey’s and Ciota and Foster. The steaks are cut in-house to order, with the exception of the filets (pre-cut by Ciota and Foster), so they can accommodate anyone desiring a specific portion size. My only caveat is that the steaks tend to be cooked one degree further than ordered. This is easily corrected; on my last visit, I ordered rare instead of medium-rare, and it was perfect.

Redman is excited about her new chef, Mike Giles. She says he’s adding color to the plates and using steak trimmings to make tasty soups that offer diners an alternative to the salads. Most importantly, in my opinion, the steaks are even better and better seasoned than ever before. The current bartender excels at making cocktail classics such as Manhattans and Old-Fashioneds.

But, thankfully, things haven’t changed much. “I’ll add to it,” says Redman. “But I never want to take anything away.”

The Old Luxemburg Inn, 1900 S. 15th St., 528-0503. Hours:Tues – Thurs. 4 – 9 p.m., Fri. – Sat. 4 – 10 p.m., Sun. 4 – 9 p.m.

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