"Kevin's place closed before mine did, so he'd come up and have a drink at my bar before he went home," recalls Watkins, a native of North Kansas City. "And we'd start talking about the kind of place we wanted to open."
Eleven years later, they have actually opened the place: Nick and Jake's (6830 West 135th Street), a free-standing brick building just off Old Metcalf that will soon be totally surrounded by strip malls and housing developments. Since every new restaurant seems to need a gimmick, Nick and Jake's has a theme, just like Dick Clark's American Bandstand (see review) a few miles to the north. For Watkins and Timmons (who named their restaurant after their sons -- four-year-old Jake Watkins and seven-year-old Nick Timmons), the not-exactly-novel concept was to have a state-of-the-art sports bar on one side of the restaurant and a more traditional steakhouse on the other. Despite the 28 TV sets and highly potent cocktails, like a mango martini or "Killer Koolaide," comparing Nick and Jake's with any other sports bar in the city would be ludicrous. The interior is so tasteful -- it was designed by Atlanta-based Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback and Associates -- that it makes the typical sports bar, all neon beer signs and promotional gee-gaws, look like a dumpy dive.
Watkins collected black-and-white photographs (including many rare, vintage prints from the Chris Wilborn collection), and has framed them artfully and hung them throughout the building. He has an entire series of U.S. presidents (Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Harry Truman) tossing out balls at baseball games. The rest of the décor is equally masculine: pine plank floors, dark wood molding, padded leather chairs and a U-shaped bar carved out of sleek black granite. "Look at this booth," Watkins brags. "It's big enough for six people or four really big guys!"
The menu, designed by former Dean & Deluca chef Jason Bowers, might be called Midwestern Moderne, with traditional dishes -- steaks, meatloaf, macaroni and cheese, chicken pot pie -- given a mild updating (nothing too clever, mind you) for suburban appetites. Bowers bakes his meatloaf with veal and wild mushrooms, smothers his chicken with a smoked-gouda cream sauce and tops his pot pie with a fluffy crust of puff pastry.
"And we serve two kinds of macaroni and cheese," says Watkins. "For the kids, it's orange and slightly runny. For adults, we use real cheddar and cream cheese, so it's really rich."
The restaurant, which opened July 30, feels like a neighborhood joint, which was the idea from the beginning. In promotional materials, Watkins and Timmons created a myth of Nick and Jake, a pair of likeable suburban kids who lived across the street from each other in Kansas City, grew up and later opened their own namesake restaurant. The tale has taken on a life of its own, and now customers often ask to meet either Nick or Jake. And why not? A black-and-white photograph of the real kids is hanging in the foyer, not far from Harry Truman.