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Jewish World Review August 30, 2002 / 22 Elul, 5762

Bob Greene

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Consumer Reports

The tough U.S. economy and the $74 steak | WASHINGTON Economic times in the United States right now are "tough," according to President Bush, but the same can't be said for the $74 steak at Signatures restaurant, eight blocks from the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue.

The $74 steak is reputed to be anything but tough -- it is said to be quite tender. Which a 12-ounce, $74 piece of meat ought to be, in good economic times or bad.

And speaking of bad economic times -- you have to ask yourself just how bad things can be when the going rate for drinking water in a hotel room is $5.75

Around the world, when other countries look at us, it must be difficult for them to keep a straight face when they hear how some of our fellow Americans choose to spend their money. It's a free country -- you can pay $74 for a steak at dinner if you can afford it, and you can pay $5.75 for a bottle of water if you really want to, even though there's free drinking water available from the bathroom sink eight strides away.

But forget, for a moment, the message we're sending the rest of the world with the $74 steak and the $5.75 drinking water. What about the message we're sending ourselves -- what about the message we are sending to our fellow citizens who are being laid off, who are having their salaries frozen? The very existence of the $74 steak would seem to be kind of a jab at them -- a "let them eat cake" gesture in the 21st Century.

Signatures serves the $74 steak at dinnertime. It is not intended for more than one person -- one steak doesn't feed an entire family. It's dinner for one. The most expensive steak in Washington.

"We sell them every night," said Peter Silano, a manager of Signatures, explaining to me that the $74 steak is not like some combination speedboat-helicopter in a specialty store's holiday catalog: not some outlandish joke product that's there to be talked about, but that no one purchases. "It's not a gimmick in any way. It's a legitimate steak."

The steak, Silano said, consists of Kobe beef, which is reputed to be the most tender in the world. "The cattle from which these steaks come are given daily massages, and are fed beer," Silano said.

But these economic times -- according to the president, who lives just down the street -- are tough. Who buys these $74 steaks?

Silano laughed. "This is Washington, D.C.," he said. "We have the Senate. We have the House. We don't lack for people who eat these steaks."

The $74 steak, like the $5.75 bottle of drinking water in the hotel rooms, would seem to be harmless enough -- no one is making anyone eat the meat or drink the water. It's like the $24 breakfasts that business travelers have become accustomed to eating on the road -- you see enough breakfast bills totaling out to $24, after a while it almost seems regular.

But especially in these times when so many people are nervous about their money and their investments, when people are hoping they won't be the next to be laid off, there's something that leaves a bad taste in the mouth about all of this -- and it's not the steak.

You'd just think we might be a little careful in drawing the thick lines between the haves and the have-nots. We've always lived in a country where most people can afford a fast-food burger for dinner, and a relatively few people can afford a restaurant steak. But to sell the steak for $74 . . . there's something about that that seems like rubbing people's faces in the good fortune that some enjoy, and the rough times that others endure.

But if you rub someone's face in the indignity, he or she can always wash it off with the $5.75 water.

(FLASH! At press time, Signatures informed us that the $74 steak has been reduced to $69. The restaurant said this is because they negotiated a better price from their purveyors. You hope that's true, and that they're really not just trying to move more streaks at the cheap $69 price. Because there's something even more off-putting about a $69 steak being considered cheap than there is about a $74 steak being considered expensive.)

What's next -- rock-bottom prices on water? $4.50?

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JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. His latest book is Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen. (Sales help fund JWR). Comment by clicking here.

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