The Houlihan's restaurant chain is such a familiar part of Kansas City's restaurant community, it's hard to imagine that when restaurateurs Joe Gilbert and Paul Robinson launched the chain, in 1972, it was considered one of the most innovative, trend-setting dining concepts of its era.
Robinson, who co-founded the Gilbert/Robinson restaurant empire with Joe Gilbert in 1961, died at his home in Florida Monday at age 87.
But his legacy as a restaurant innovator will live on.
"Houlihan's was truly a groundbreaking restaurant concept," says Mary Simpson, regional director for the Capital Grill Restaurant chain. She spent a decade working for Gilbert/Robinson. "It ushered in a new era in American dining. Before Paul Robinson began designing restaurants, casual dining was usually without any style or imagination."
Restaurateur Forbes Cross worked at Gilbert/Robinson for six years before opening his own restaurants. Although Robinson was semi-retired, he continued to design restaurant interiors for Cross' restaurants, including Martinis and the Union Cafe.
"He was a great gentleman and intensely creative," Cross says. "He taught a whole generation of younger restaurateurs the importance of restaurant design and creating concepts that were fresh and appealing."
Robinson was a manager at the Golden Ox Steakhouse in 1961 when he met Joe Gilbert -- the creator of the Four Winds restaurant at the old downtown -- and the two forged a partnership that went on to launch successful restaurant concepts such as Annie's Santa Fe, the Bristol Cafe & Bar, Plaza III, Fedora Cafe & Bar, and Fred P. Ott's.
The Kansas City-based Gilbert/Robinson became a publicly traded company in 1976 and was sold to a conglomerate, W.R. Grace, two years later. It was sold twice again after that.
"He was a great innovator," says Joe Wilcox, general manager of the Jack Gage American Tavern and former general manager of the Bristol and Plaza III.