A black-and-white photograph in the lobby of the new 77 South restaurant in Leawood shows a handsome couple. She's a vivacious-looking blonde with big, bouncy hair; he has serious sideburns and wears one of the natty polyester jacket-and-pants combinations known in the 1970s as a leisure suit.
You need to study this photograph to truly appreciate the concept of 77 South, a restaurant that exists as a kind of tribute to this snazzy couple: Sleepy and Cynthia Arnold, the groovy creators of a long-forgotten disco called 77 South that operated for several swingin' years at 77th Street and Troost.
The nightclub was sold in 1980, about the same time that disco was falling out of favor. When disco died, a whole cultural identity fizzled out — taking 77 South with it. I know: I worked at an ill-fated disco restaurant that opened in 1979, precisely when the disco phenomenon peaked. The restaurant was passé practically before it opened.
But the distinctive music and fashion of the era were hot stuff in 1971 when the Arnolds opened 77 South. Its illuminated dance floor (the first in the area) was the same kind that John Travolta later spun around on in Saturday Night Fever. Sleepy's son, Chris Arnold, was just a toddler in 1971, but even today he remembers the colored lights under the dance floor and the beat of the music.
Chris Arnold is now 43 years old. His mother, Cynthia, is deceased, and Sleepy (who would go on to own another nightclub, Yesterdays, also on Troost) is long retired. But when Chris and his business partner, Mike Howell (a former general manager at J. Gilbert's), took over the lease of a vacant venue at 5041 West 135th Street, they brought disco with them.
The location, which opened as a Jimmy Buffet's Cheeseburger in Paradise and later became Tannahs Asian Bistro, has a demographic primarily of baby boomers, the very generation that loved and then abandoned the likes of Donna Summer, Barry White, and KC and the Sunshine Band.
Arnold decided that a restaurant with upscale food, a modest dance floor and a 1970s soundtrack might be a popular counterpoint to another operation directed at the boomer crowd: the Gaslight Grill, a combination jazz club and restaurant a few blocks away. Both restaurants offer live music, a relatively sophisticated menu, smooth service and Sunday brunch. A friend of mine who has dined in both restaurants calls them throwbacks to a time when going out to eat was its own entertainment. "These restaurants are for the anti-Cheddars crowd," she says.
Both restaurants are definitely designed for Leawood's older clientele, though the food at the two-month-old 77 South isn't outrageously expensive. Most of the dinner entrees are under $20, and the pasta dishes average even less.
I can't believe that former Granite City chef Bill Eck, who oversees the 77 South kitchen, intentionally added the same dishes that I remember from restaurant menus of the 1970s: stuffed mushrooms, baked brie and lobster tail. (Eck deep-fries his tail, however, which would have been heresy during the Carter administration.) I don't know what provokes a more frightening flashback: eating gooey, molten brie baked in a pastry wrapper (it looks like a blintz, actually) or hearing Donna Summer moan "Love to Love You, Baby" while eating the brie. The only things missing — for me, anyway — are the drugs and a 30-inch waistline.
Many more waistlines than just mine were under assault as early as the 1970s, when the concept of a sumptuous Sunday brunch was at its pinnacle. People were hungry after a night of shaking their groove things and God only knows what else. I've eaten much more elaborate brunches than the spread laid out at 77 South, but this one has its own peculiar charm. The Mexican-inspired egg casserole defies description, but it's preferable to a prime rib that, the day I sampled it, looked gorgeous but was almost too sinewy to cut with a steak knife.
My friends liked most of what they piled on their plates: cinnamon-apple French toast, serviceable cheese blintzes, cheesy bacon hash browns, and an eggs Benedict that wasn't outstanding but passed muster. There's an omelet station, too, but patrons don't have to stand there and listen to Donny Osmond wailing "Go Away, Little Girl" (or something equally milk-curdling) while waiting for the eggs. There's a tidy little form to be filled out at the table, and the server — an aggressively chatty actor, in my case — does all the work.
Dinner is a much more interesting experience, though I might have missed something more exciting by not dining on one of the nights — Wednesday through Saturday — when live entertainment is in the lounge. On those evenings, various musicians and combos play the greatest hits of the 1970s, with a wild-and-crazy DJ taking over every Saturday. Having grown up listening to those songs, I don't particularly want to hear them again. Especially while I eat.
The dining room was so dimly lighted on the Tuesday night I dined, I could barely read the menu. It's one thing to pay tribute to the 1970s, but it's another thing entirely to dine in the gloom of the Middle Ages. Another table must have complained before I could, because the lights magically turned up at some point. Our charming waiter, Mica (who briefly made desserts for the restaurant and then didn't), fussed over my friends Becky and Queenie. They were instantly his converts, even when he forgot to bring out Becky's wine or rolls for the table or, finally, the check. "Isn't he wonderful?" Becky asked.
Hey, he looked like a young Rick James, and that was good enough in this setting. And on a cold night, good enough can be a welcome relief. The soup, a rich potato concoction, was served white-hot, and a glitch — the kitchen was out of trout — was solved without hassle. (Salmon was made instead, in the manner of the trout: blanketed with a sheer skrim of lemon-dill cream sauce.)
Becky hesitated, unable to decide between cheese tortellini and jambalaya — "It comes with jalapeño hush puppies," she whispered, as if that might be a good thing. She chose the pasta, tossed in a fine sun-dried-tomato "pesto" defeated by shrimp that had been sauteed with enough garlic to ward off an entire dance floor of vampires. She loved it, even if tortellini — with anything — is the "Disco Duck" of the pasta world.
Maybe it was the music — nothing good ever happens when I hear Evelyn "Champagne" King's "Shame" — but I chose wildly and unsuitably that night. I saw "prosciutto-stuffed chicken breast" on the menu but didn't read the description carefully enough to see that the meat was "encrusted in Italian crumbs and fried." Fried is an understatement. The cream-cheese-and-prosciutto-stuffed bird was served under a rocky armor of bread crumbs. I was glad I'd filled up on that baked brie, because eating enough of the chicken would have required a pickax. My friends raved about their meals and felt that I should have known better than to order a fried chicken breast in a restaurant that wasn't, you know, famous for fried chicken. A good point.
At this point in 77 South's evolution, Mica the waiter was still making the restaurant's desserts. He raved about his triple-chocolate layer cake, and I have to say it was outstanding — pretty, with enough fudgy, sugary icing for a child's birthday cake.
I'm not sure, as this year progresses, what 77 South will become known for. The sincere affection for the 1970s? The deep-fried lobster tail? The revival of disco as a dinner soundtrack? This restaurant has such an unusual concept that I wonder if I'm the right person to appreciate it. I have very little nostalgia for the 1970s. I was thrilled to see that decade go away.
But things don't go away in Kansas City. The past just moves south.