Earlier this month, bulldozers tore down the remains of Kansas City's original Hereford House at 20th Street and Main after an explosion and fire had shuttered it for good in October 2008. The place was iconic — even though I never included it on a list of the city's best steakhouses, I know a lot of people who did. In fact, I once got into an argument on an airplane with a stranger who insisted that the 20th Street Hereford House was the best steakhouse in the world.
What that Hereford House did have, in abundance, was tradition. The serving staff rarely changed, which was comforting, and the menu didn't seem to change much either. The regulars liked that.
But the place was dowdy, to be polite. My friend Truman worked as a waiter there in the 1970s and said it was kind of grungy even then — at that time, the restaurant wasn't even 20 years old. But he had great respect for its first owner, Jack Webb: "He was very courtly, very old-school," Truman said. "He was always dressed to the nines ... a real gentleman."
This Jack Webb shouldn't be confused with the star of the 1960s Dragnet TV series (even if that Jack Webb did star in a 1950s movie, Pete Kelly's Blues, set in a Kansas City speakeasy), but both were stars in different spheres. "Everyone in town knew the Hereford House's Jack Webb," Truman said. "It was a very popular place even though it was a little on the shabby side. I used to tell people that it went through a rough patch and never got out of it."
That remained true after Rod Anderson bought it in 1987 and began opening other Hereford Houses throughout the metro.
I recently took Truman and our friend Lorraine to dinner at the Prime Rib Grill by Hereford House, Anderson's replacement for his late, lamented icon. Three months ago, the Prime Rib Grill took over the nondescript, two-story brick building across the street on Walnut that had served as the Anderson Restaurant Group's catering hall for many years. Fans of the old Hereford House, including lots of tourists, have given the new restaurant their seal of approval because it has the spirit of the original, even though it's cleaner, has a different menu and has dropped a few half-century-old traditions.
A lot of art from the old Hereford House made it to the new dining rooms, including the bull's-head stained-glass window near the bar. But nowhere did I see my favorite piece of kitsch: an oil painting of John Wayne's head floating over a desert landscape. I hope it survived the wrecking ball.
Truman noticed other changes immediately. "They don't wheel out the dinners on carts anymore," he said. "And they don't bring out the salad dressings in the metal Lazy Susan with the three different containers. One had pink dressing, another had orange, and I can't remember what the other color was — blue cheese, I think."
It may be "by Hereford House," but the Prime Rib Grill is significantly different from its namesake. The oddly configured space is much more pleasant, and I think the food is much better. The Capital Grille or Ruth's Chris Steak House it isn't, but that has never been Anderson's demographic. He knows what his patrons want: a reasonably priced complete meal — including a salad or soup, rolls and a side dish — and, damn it, that's what they get.
We loved the baseball-sized, yeasty rolls made from leftover mashed potatoes. They were scrumptious, although the salt glaze was a shade too salty.
During happy hour, diners can get three bucks off the appetizers, which is a deal because the starters are too costly otherwise and not that memorable, at least the ones I sampled. Blue-crab lettuce wraps were a weird spin on a Vietnamese favorite, with tasteless, stingy-on-the-crab, heavily breaded little pucks on a mess of creamy cole slaw that was so spicy, I could barely eat it. Portobello spring rolls were ridiculously greasy and served with a vinegary soy-based sauce that one friend described as "a little dish of awful." Much better were the bacon-wrapped shrimp, though they weren't really "jumbo."
I think the starters were doubly disappointing because this restaurant's executive chef, Chris Jones, is very talented. He has created no fewer than eight variations on prime rib, including the "City Fried" version that Truman ordered, thinking it would be heavily battered like chicken-fried steak. That might have been the original intention, but Jones, a Louisiana native, found that deep-fried prime rib lost something in translation. So for this surprisingly good variation on oven-roasted beef, he lightly coats the meat with batter and quickly sautés it. The crust, such as it is, is paper-thin and almost evanescent.
The same can't be said for the heavy crust of crushed peppercorns on Lorraine's otherwise gorgeous hunk of seared tuna. After one bite, I reached for my water. A more discreet hand on the pepper mill, I say. This meat-heavy menu also includes two vegetarian pasta selections: an orchetta pasta tossed with wild mushrooms, grilled asparagus, roasted garlic and mozzarella, and a butternut squash ravioli that I found exceptional. Pillows of pasta were fat with a squash purée and were topped with a tasty jumble of sautéed spinach, pine nuts and sage in a silky brown-butter sauce. It was so rich, I was happy that I'd settled on a half order.
On my second visit, with Judith and Michael, we indulged in cups of a lusty French onion soup dripping with molten cheese and in salads with the dressings on the side. I missed the old Lazy Susan, and I don't recall whether the once-famous pink dressing was even mentioned as an option. These days, the house dressing is a creamy cheese concoction that tastes like an ersatz ranch.
Michael got a juicy little filet and was amused to see that the list of side dishes included poached or scrambled eggs, although he didn't order either. (Jones told me that lots of customers order the eggs, although he plans to drop the poached and add a fried egg instead.) Judith liked the smoked prime rib but made a mistake in requesting it medium: "It's closer to well-done," she grimaced but ate most of it anyway, sided with mashed potatoes that were nearly as creamy as potato soup. Meanwhile, I adored the honey-caramelized scallops, not too sweet and lightly glazed (unlike the overly peppered tuna, which had made me wary).
As we thought about dessert, our server insisted that the apple strudel is made in Jones' kitchen. It isn't, but close enough: One of Jones' bakers makes it from scratch. I wasn't crazy about the soft, bland pastry. But I loved the house-made pecan pie and one of this restaurant's specialties, a tiny white-chocolate bread pudding — emphasis on the pudding. It's more like a flan.
All of my dining companions agreed that there were flaws at this new downtown steakhouse, but the positives outweighed the negatives. "I'd come back," Lorraine whispered, "but only to get a steak." And Truman, after mourning the loss of the rolling carts and the salad-dressing presentation, decided that he liked the Prime Rib Grill better than the old Hereford House. "It's got a great energy, and the food is a lot better than the old restaurant. I guess you'd call that progress."
Well, I would.