Late last year, I found myself driving from Omaha, NE to Salina, KS to see an account I'd been chasing for quite sometime. The route took me along Interstate 80 west to then head south on U.S. Highway 281 at York, NE. It was around 1 p.m. and I was uncertain when I'd be able to have dinner in Kansas City that night (yes, it was a lot of driving that particular day), so I decided to wander into York and have lunch at one of my all time favorite steakhouses/supper clubs, Chances 'R'.
I had written about Chances 'R' about seven years ago and I really wanted to do a better write up on the place. I had first found out about the restaurant a number of years ago from a guy who worked for one of my former dealers in Iowa City. He asked me if I ever traveled past York on trips out to Central Nebraska (I did, many times, back in the 90's). He told me, "There's this excellent steakhouse out there that you need to check out." I stopped in York and found Chances 'R' for a great dinner. I made it a regular stop on my trips out to Grand Island after that until I got my new job in 2002. The last time I was there was in 2006 when I found myself out in Lincoln one evening and decided to make the 45 minute trip to York for a good steak. So I was really looking forward to hitting Chances 'R' again.
There's a long and storied past to Chances 'R' that begins back in the early 30's. A guy with the colorful name of Hiney Neufeld started a restaurant called the Cozy Lunch in 1932, advertising his little restaurant as a "modern hamburger shop." Adding the sale of alcohol after the end of Prohibition, Hiney Neufeld ran the place until he sold it to the father and son team of Robert and Roy Schultz in 1937. Roy Schultz, and his wife, Thelma (aka "Mimi") ran the small Cozy Lunch (seating capacity - 50) for the family for the next 20 years before their daughter and son-in-law, Shirley and Raymond Reetz, bought the business.
The Reetz's operated the business as the Cozy Lunch until 1964. They decided to expand the size of the original building by three-fold, buying up other buildings around the property. They completely remodeled the restaurant and other buildings and increased seating to 180. Raymond Reetz knew that his aggressive expansion plan was very risky and he confided in his wife, "Chances are that we'll go broke, but I want to give it a try." That's how the restaurant became the Chances 'R'.
Over the years, the Reetz's found success with both the restaurant and a booming on-site and off-site catering business. In 1978, their daughter, Suzanne, and her husband, Tom Vanous, became partners with the Reetz's, and five years later the group expanded the restaurant with a lounge and an inside beer garden that increased seating to 550. The lounge (pictured below left), west-side dinner room (pictured below right) and one of the banquet rooms were outfitted with a dark mahogany wood, stained glass and brass railing giving Chances 'R' a very classy feel to the place.
Raymond and Shirley Reetz retired from the business in 2008 after 51 years of owning the restaurant. Tom and Suzanne Vanous, and her younger brother, Jason, and his wife, Holly - who joined the restaurant as partners in 1999 - continue to run Chances 'R' today.
As I said, it was after 1 p.m. when I pulled into one of the spacious parking lots across the street from Chances 'R' in downtown York (see map). The lot was nearly full, as was parking on the street. I thought, "Oh, boy. I may have a little bit of a wait." From the outside, Chances 'R' doesn't look all that big. But with three large dining areas and at least two banquet rooms, they can handle a lot of people.
After a quick trip to one of Chances 'R's "world class" restrooms (they're pretty proud of their restrooms, which are nice, but I wouldn't call them the best I've been in), I went to the hostess stand just inside the front door and waited to be seated. The hostess finally caught up with me and took me into the more casual oak wood-trimmed east-side dining room. I had never eaten in the east dining room in my previous visits as I actually preferred to sit in the Hob-Nob lounge at the bar. However, during lunch, the bar in the lounge is transformed into a spacious salad bar (pictured right). And the more ornate and less casual west dining room was full of diners.
I was seated at a booth along the wall and given a menu to look over. A waitress made her way over to take my drink order and asked if I was ready to order. The menu at Chances 'R' - even at lunch - is pretty broad. I needed a few minutes. She was rather indifferent in her attitude, I thought. Nonetheless, I carried on looking through the menu.
I'd had the New York strip, the rib eye, and the prime rib on previous visits. However, I'd never had a filet. I decided to get that.
When the waitress came back with my drink, she said, "Oh, I guess I'd better tell you about the lunch specials." Her demeanor was rather neutral - not upbeat, nor was she surly. She seemed almost robotic in her actions. I told her that I wasn't interested in the specials and that I had pretty much made my mind up. "Oh! OK! Sure!" I gave her my order of a filet - rare with a side of hash browns. "All right," she coolly said as she clicked her pen. "I'll get that right out for you." She didn't even offer me a chance to go through the salad bar. Even for an upcharge, I would have probably done that.
However, Chances 'R', like many supper club/steakhouses across the Midwest, offers a house salad served with a carousel of three different types of dressing. I had my choice of sweet French, a creamy blue cheese, and a 1000 island that was similar to the Nebraska-made Dorothy Lynch salad dressing. I tried the sweet French on part of my salad at first and it had a nice sweet and tangy taste to it. I then tried the 1000 dressing and while it was good, the taste wasn't as pleasing as the sweet French. But then I tried a bit of the cream blue cheese - whoa! The blue cheese chunks were fresh and had a wonderful taste. I tried the sweet French again, but decided that the blue cheese was probably the best of the three.
Now, I remember that they had a creamy garlic dressing at Chances 'R' in the past, but it wasn't part of the triumvirate of dressings that were brought to me that day. It was probably for the best as I remembered it to be a very forward garlic dressing that lingered on the tongue for hours after I ate it. Since I had a pretty important meeting in Salina later that afternoon, heavy garlic on the breath may not have gone over well.
My steak showed up - a small filet that, really, for what it was turned out to be pretty expensive. A slab of hash browns laid passively next to the steak. I cut into the steak and found it to be a little more medium-rare than rare, but that was all right. The steak was tender, had a nice seasoning on it, and was very flavorful. It certainly wasn't the best steak I've had, but it was still very good.
The hash browns, although they looked rather bland sitting on the plate, were also not that bad. Some cheese and some grilled onions would have livened them up a bit, but the lingering taste of the hash browns had kind of that grilled butter taste to them.
My very impassive waitress came over to check on me and asked how everything was going. I told her that it was good. And it was. Not great, but certainly not bad. It was definitely an above average beef tenderloin filet, but far from a great cut of meat.
I splurged on lunch to the tune of about $40 bucks with an average tip for the unemotional waitress. I don't know if she didn't like her job or if she was just the type of person that had no personality at all. She wasn't unfriendly by any means, but she was about as emotionally constrained as I've ever encountered in a server. My meal, like previous visits to Chances 'R' was fine, probably a little more expensive for lunch than I'd like to spend, but it was still good. Being that it's one of the top destinations to eat in the state of Nebraska, chances are that Chance 'R' will be around for another 50 years, at least.