Theres a reason that J. Alexanders parking lot is full all the time: polished service and an uncomplicated, eager-to-please menu reminiscent of Sally Field at the 1985 Academy Awards ceremony: You like me, you really like me! This Nashville-based chains motto that it serves straightforward American fare is true. And like American restaurants of an earlier era, the entrées at J. Alexanders include potato or side dish. Side salads cost a little extra, but theyre huge and served with flaky, freshly baked croissants. Signature dishes are steaks, prime rib and a delectable grilled pork tenderloin (served with Bang Bang sauce), and theres a variety of sandwiches and salads, too. It says volumes about J. Alexanders that even the oddest-sounding dishes like Maui steak, marinated in pineapple juice, soy sauce and brown sugar are surprisingly tasty. — Charles Ferruzza
Named after Kansas Citys legendary restaurateur Joe Gilbert (founder of the former Gilbert/Robinson restaurant empire), this steak house pays tribute to a style of hearty American dining that has been vanishing since the Vietnam War. Everything is big at J. Gilberts: the booths, the drinks, the steaks even the appetizers, the baked potatoes and the loaf of sourdough bread that accompanies the meals. J. Gilberts doesnt have the high profile of its Plaza contemporaries but that suits its beef-loving devotees just fine, since this restaurant continues to be one of Johnson Countys best-kept culinary secrets. — Charles Ferruzza
Houston's features dark, cool and masculine dining rooms with slick, attentive service from attractive young servers (so deftly trained that they've been called, rather unkindly, "The Stepford Waitstaff"). The menu is limited to hearty grilled meats and fresh fish -- barbecued chicken, ribs, filet mignon, prime rib and salmon or Idaho trout -- although a vegetable platter, salads and a veggie burger are available for the noncarnivores. — Charles Ferruzza
Specializing in fine wines, champagne, scotch and cigars, this distinguished Westport venue attracts a swank crowd. Harry's doesn't open until 3 p.m., but by the time 5 o'clock rolls around, an assortment of wingtip types and urban professionals can be found relaxing at the bar. Not that Harry's is superexclusive; even the proletariat can be found enjoying half-price bottles of wine and appetizers at happy hour. The pressed-tin ceilings, tiled floors and look of worn sophistication lend a Manhattan feel to the place, and the outdoor brick patio is fantastic during warm months.
A couple of years after starting a company that made and delivered soups, Todd Schulte decided to expand his horizons. With his wife, Tracy Zinn, Schulte took over the iconic Gillis Sundries location at the corner of Gillis and Pacific in historic Columbus Park. In the 1950s and 60s, Chee Bay Guastellos Gillis Sundries was the neighborhood hangout (he sold hot dogs, malts, penny candy and package liquor); the new owners have created a hangout with more imaginative sandwiches, excellent soups and modest but comforting breakfasts. Reflecting the cultural diversity of the neighborhood, Schulte serves Vietnamese banh mi on crusty baguette, curried chicken salad, grilled Cuban sandwiches, a classic egg salad, and meatloaf on Farm to Market bread. Theres no penny candy or chocolate ice cream sodas, but the freshly baked apple cake and brownies more than make up for that.
Grinders West is the most recent culinary creation of the artist-entrepreneur known simply as Stretch. It may be next-door to his bawdier, more raucous Grinders pizza joint, but its different: Its a deli though not in the classic sense with sandwiches, salads and pasta entrées; customers also can order off the Grinders menu. Grinders West is more visually sophisticated in design even the tables, done in the style of shadow boxes, are by local artists. $$ — Charles Ferruzza
At 15 years old, this stylish dining room is middle-aged by restaurant standards, but it retains a sense of glamour, even if its located on the less fashionable east side of the Plaza. The striking Hal Swanson interior is intact, but the menu has gone through numerous incarnations over the past decade and a half. Devotees dont seem to mind the culinary mood swings, as long as the beloved Bills Chicken Salad and the grilled pork chop stay the same. — Charles Ferruzza
The midtown Ghengis Khan, the areas Mongolian-barbecue pioneer, remains a popular destination for people from all over the metro area. The décor is hip and artistic, and seating is both comfortable and plentiful. The all-you-can-eat buffet is the most popular option at Ghengis (though the menu offers a variety of Asian dishes, including traditional clay-pot-simmered stews). The buffet allows patrons to select ingredients for their own stir fry from an array of raw vegetables, meats, seafoods, spices and flavorings. Once youve filled your bowl, hand it to the grill attendants, who cook in front of you on a giant, sizzling, circular grill. The point isnt theater but immediacy and transparency, and the results satisfy a full house during the lunch and dinner peaks.
About as Irish as the Brookside/Waldo area gets, the Gaf is a fairly cozy neighborhood pub on Wornall that attracts a mixed crowd of neighborhood types (families, old folks, and a lot of single men) with reasonably priced food and friendly service. It has about the same number of Irish whiskeys as it does flavored vodkas, but its dark-wood interior, fancy bar stools and dim lighting make it a Guinness kind of place. Depending on who's working behind the artifact-laden bar (and whether a soccer or rugby game is showing on one of the flat screens), the Gaf can be good for a quiet pint alone with a book or for revving up with friends and a Car Bomb before a Waldo pub crawl.