But step through the big front doors and keep walking, past the stand-up tables and tall chairs and the row of booths along the wall facing Ward Parkway. Hanging on the wall just over the last booth, a small, primitive painting reveals that the old Granfalloon (located around the corner at 621 W. 48th Street) was smaller, squatter and -- on the surface, anyway -- less glamorous.
In its heyday, however, the original Granfalloon was a scene: "It was the original fern bar in Kansas City, I think," says writer and former restaurateur Lou Jane Temple. "And there really were ferns. It was very much the place to pick up someone -- or be picked up -- on the Plaza in the late '70s and early '80s."
"In the '70s, you could always count on seeing a handsome, big-name athlete in there, drinking and flirting with girls," recalls my friend Gloria. "But I don't remember anything about the food."
Another friend remembers the cuisine as "dumpy bar food."
That's because the Granfalloon's fans gathered there for more festive reasons than eating. Shortly after it opened in 1977, the place established itself as a lively, noisy and smoky late-night spot. It was beloved by servers and cooks at other Plaza restaurants, who would crowd into the long and narrow space for a couple of calming cocktails after a busy dinner shift. The new -- and spacious -- Granfalloon opened last August without a single fern but with the same raucous energy. And better food. It's not a gourmet destination, but by "bar food" standards -- burgers, fried appetizers and the occasional grilled steak -- the place deserves credit for its inexpensive meals created with some unexpected flair.
That's true even when the kitchen is too creative for its own good and there's a far too liberal hand cranking the pepper mill. Not everything on the plastic-coated menu scores points in this bar (where most of the TV sets are quietly tuned to sports channels), but there are a few touchdowns.
An order of Granfalloon's spinach artichoke dip comes with a huge basket of tortilla chips -- enough for three people -- but we had to ration the very garlicky spinach and melted cheese concoction that came in a little white dish. The loaded-down seven-layer dip -- guacamole, diced tomatoes, peppers and cheese piled on top of refried beans -- is easier to share in a tidy manner.
Much messier are the excellent Falloon Wings, meaty, deep-fried chicken wings slathered in a spicy, vinegary hot sauce sided by a chilled blue cheese dressing to "cool" them down. While the dressing may be cool, it's so bland you wonder whether there's any cheese -- bleu, blue or any other color -- in it. The Granfalloon makes only two of its seven salad dressings in-house ("The ranch and the honey- mustard," said one sassy waitress, who talked my friend Steve out of the fat-free raspberry vinaigrette). The sweet honey-mustard -- emphasis is on the honey -- comes off best. And the salads are surprisingly hearty affairs: served on chilled plates with fat, toasted croutons, a thick round of cucumber and a solid wedge of a fresh red tomato. You won't get any bread, however, only cellophane-wrapped crackers. What passes for bread, a cold and dull-tasting roll, comes out with the dinners.
On one visit, I brought my friends Jim and Steve to the Granfalloon before our weekly book club meeting. They pointed out that the bar is one of the least likely joints in the city to have literary pretensions, even though its name comes from Kurt Vonnegut's 1963 novel, Cat's Cradle. The youthful, pretty waitresses all wear T-shirts with a quote from the book on the back: "A granfalloon is a proud and meaningless association of human beings."
"That could describe anything, in-cluding our book club," said Jim. He cut into a grilled chicken breast drizzled with orange-rosemary sauce, which was heavier on the orange than the rosemary. "For the price, it's great," Jim said of the dinner, which was only a dollar more than a sandwich. "And this isn't the kind of food you'd expect to get in a bar."
True enough, but the seventeen sandwiches come with great french fries, while the "seasonal vegetables" that accompanied Jim's meal were a washed-out, soggy and mushy medley of squash and snow peas. He barely picked at it; I refused to even taste the same medley when it arrived with my chicken roulade, a breast rolled around a bit of pepperoni and a hunk of mozzarella cheese, breaded and seared until it looks -- and tastes -- like a pizza roll. The lemon angel hair pasta beside my chicken seemed to be heavily doused with pepper. And when I reached over and sampled the roasted garlic mashed potatoes alongside Steve's beef medallions, the pepper overpowered any hint of garlic.
But the tender slices of filet, swimming in a lush port wine and mushroom sauce, more than made up for the disappointing mashed potatoes. And even Steve's pepper fiasco must have been an isolated case, because on a return visit, my friend Lesa raved over the mashed potatoes (which were loaded with fat cloves of garlic and nearly pepper-free) that arrived with her juicy grilled pork chop on a bed of cabbage. The menu claims the chop is served with an apple-brandy sauce, but it's more like a relish of chopped fresh apples with a mere splash of brandy. It's a light, flavorful way to pep up a bland hunk of pork -- if only the strong caraway flavor of the marinated cabbage hadn't been so overwhelming.
On that visit I ordered a Reuben. I'd expected it to be grilled, but the thick corned beef and its not-very-sour sauerkraut and swiss cheese came on barely toasted rye bread, with a little cup of thousand island dressing on the side.
I had hoped for more excitement from one of Granfalloon's three desserts. Instead, the fat slab of carrot cake was only average-tasting, and the Chocolate Suicide Cake, which sounded promising enough, arrived as a skinny wedge of shiny, chewy layer cake with a thick blanket of sugary icing. Blah!
But hey, this isn't some glam bistro. It's the good ol' Granfalloon, where the place is nearly always packed with that "proud and meaningless group" that seems happy and content enough to eat and smoke and gab and watch TV. Just like the old days.