Naked Lunch

Is there such a thing as a free lunch?

Mothers and presidents once dismissed the notion of a free meal as pure fiction. Yet a number of “gentlemen’s clubs”–topless bars to more honest people–around the Dallas area promise just such a thing. Billboards, marquees, and banners placed boldly along Northwest Highway, Industrial Boulevard, and Harry Hines proclaim that the age of the free lunch is at hand.

Strip joints advertise everything from burgers to buffets to rib-eye steak–all for free. “We do it for our customers,” says Mark Dumas, general manager of the Dallas Gentleman’s Club on Northwest Highway and a man who obviously cares for the hungry, impoverished lech. Of course, there is a catch. It costs a buck just to enter the establishment, and they charge Starbucks prices ($3.50) for a plain old cup of coffee without any French or Italian affectations. With a tip, this particular free lunch will set you back five or six bucks–unless you opt for the $2 longneck instead of coffee. If you choose to chug down a noontime beer, free lunch at the Dallas Gentleman’s Club tabs out at $4 or $5, including tip. Of course, this requires an additional outlay for breath mints (or an alcoholic boss).

Over at Dreams on Industrial, a free lunch runs in the $6 to $7 range, including tip. The Lodge, just off Northwest Highway, offers free lunch on Mondays only. “We break even on that,” admits manager Derik Duran (insert “Hungry Like the Wolf” joke here). “We make it up on beer, alcohol, and wine.” Some places even charge for water, after enterprising spendthrifts attempted to dodge the hefty drink prices.

So there really is no such thing as a free lunch, after all. Still, the “free” lunch program remains popular. “I’ve tried every free lunch out there,” claims Dale (he wouldn’t give his last name lest his wife discover the truth about his frequent business lunches). “I’ve had the worst and the best.” He rates Dallas Gentleman’s Club as the worst. The best? “Buffet at The Lodge,” he says.

The Lodge started its free lunch buffet in January. “It’s been incredible, a great turnout,” Duran reports. “Nowadays you have to have a comfortable atmosphere and food service,” he adds. The Lodge charges restaurant prices for lunch Tuesday through Saturday–which means $7.95 for a pretty good London broil, along with restaurant-style service, no cover, and plenty of bare breasts. They draw around 120 people during a typical lunch rush, and up to 300 for the entire lunch-service period. The restaurant employs five cooks, offers a menu ranging from salad to steak, and actually worries about plate presentation. Of course, most traditional restaurants follow a strict no shirt, no shoes, no service policy.

Other clubs don’t bother with pretension. The Dallas Gentleman’s Club, for example, offers only a choice of burgers or chicken-breast sandwiches. “We’re not The Mansion,” says Dumas with a bit of understatement, “but for free, I guarantee it’s as good as Jack in the Box or Burger King.” Indeed, a “free” meal at The Dallas Gentleman’s Club may cost a bit more than a fast-food lunch, but the food tastes about the same. And their floor show is arguably much better than watching a teenage fast-food employee sweat into the fryer. The club pulls in between 70 and 150 men during lunch. But its kitchen remains a limited facility staffed by one cook. “Our customers kept asking us why we couldn’t get food in here,” Dumas explains, “so we added a kitchen.” He even manned the grill one day after firing the cook for failing to keep the buns warm. Seriously.

Dreams employs D-Town’s Catering to provide its free lunch service and other menu items. The free luncheon includes either a 10-ounce rib eye with baked potato and salad, or a burger and fries. The burger rivals those served by regular restaurants, the type where women walk around fully clothed. “The food is good,” crows manager Don Bushey (insert juvenile joke here). “I eat it every day.”

D-Town’s Mark Brown–just starting his catering career after three years in the kitchens of Outback Steakhouse–makes the burgers by hand. “It’s a lot to give away,” Brown admits, “but they’re trying to attract attention to the club and this is my stepping stone into catering, so we both benefit.”

Yet for all the emphasis on customer relations and food preparation, the “free” lunch program remains simply a transparent effort to attract men to look at women’s breasts.

Duran describes The Lodge as a young club. It’s been in existence for four years and must battle established high-end locales such as The Men’s Club and Cabaret Royale. Dreams sits in the shadow of downtown–but on the wrong side of the highway, not easily accessible. For Bushey, “free” lunch is a way to attract the business crowd, people who want to get in and out quickly yet still enjoy themselves. “Does it work?” he asks. “Not as well as I’d like. Getting across that damn highway is the hard part.” The Dallas Gentleman’s Club occupies a space halfway between The Lodge and The Men’s Club–formidable neighbors with hefty budgets. This is lunch with a purpose, a competitive, attention-grabbing purpose.

So mom was right. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Well, mom also said something about giving away the milk for free.