Not that a lot of big names haven't tried. The Uptown Café was the first expansion effort for a Branson-based family-style restaurant that didn't serve alcohol. In less than a year, Hereford House Restaurants had taken over and, not surprisingly, added booze to the menu. Leawood might be a bedroom community, but it's not a teetotaling town.
After two years, though, the Hereford House's Rod Anderson realized he couldn't make the 1950s-style diner click. "For one thing, it was a dining room that had 220 seats, and you saw all of them the minute you walked into the restaurant," he says. "When the place was full, it rocked. But when it was half empty, you could fire a cannon through it and not hit anyone."
When Anderson pulled out in 2000, another Kansas City restaurant operation, KC Hopps Ltd. (the 75th Street Brewery, Barley's Brewhaus, the Blue Moose) took over and named it the Uptown Diner. That incarnation lasted until the fall of 2002. Out went the retro theme and the trashy, purple-blue exterior. When KC Hopps once again opened the stainless-steel-and-glass doors last April, the venue had been completely revamped and repainted (in tastefully bland taupe) as the dark and clubby Fenton's Bar and Grill.
No, the restaurant wasn't named for the fictional Fenton Hardy, the "internationally famous detective" and father of those lovable teenage crime-solvers the Hardy Boys. Solving yet another mystery, it has no connection to another Johnson County restaurant named Fenton's, which used to serve roasted chicken and corn chowder at 151st Street and Metcalf. That other Fenton's, named for restaurateur Fenton Barnard, closed at about the same time that the Uptown Café opened. This newest Fenton's was named for septuagenarian Jim Fenton, the first regular customer at the 75th Street Brewery. Such a touching gesture. I practically wept.
Remind me, if I ever open my own restaurant, to name it Two Chubby Blond Girls, after my first regular customers when I waited tables at a now-closed midtown restaurant. Alas, I lost touch with those Rubenesque babes after I was fired, though I recall that they liked to drink martinis, very dry, with an olive and a pickled onion. Eerily, that's just what my friend Bob ordered at Fenton's when he discovered that Thursday nights featured two-buck martinis.
We had barely squeezed into a booth when our server, Leo, announced the drink special. Food and mystery writer Lou Jane Temple, joining us on our adventure, immediately snapped to attention. "Two-dollar martinis? I'll have one, too."
How things have changed from the innocent days of 1998, when this venue served only lemonade and chocolate malts. Now the bar permits smoking and offers drink specials nearly every night. Bob and Lou Jane were so delighted by the cheap martinis that they downed several, putting them in the happiest of moods. And when Bob heard that the Thursday night dinner special was a $12 Kansas City strip, his cup ran over.
Maybe it was because I wasn't drinking, but I didn't see anything on the menu -- which boasts a lot of the same dishes you see on other KC Hopps-owned restaurants -- that really turned me on. Even the appetizer assortment was a rerun of the stuff you'd see at the 75th Street Brewery or the Blue Moose: chicken nachos, spinach-artichoke dip, Bavarian pretzels.
The Tabasco Onion Rings sounded novel, so we ordered them, along with the Four-Cheese Spinach Artichoke Dip, from the charming but perpetually flustered Leo. The lightly battered onion rings were a delicate pink, thanks to a healthy dose of fiery Tabasco sauce that gave them a distinct kick. But the dip was predictably dull: cheesy, yes, but with artichokes chopped so finely that they'd practically disappeared. And though the menu bragged that the concoction would be "served with our homemade tortilla chips," it arrived alongside a pile of disturbingly psychedelic corn chips in shades of candy-apple red and acid green.
Leo had asked us whether we wanted our salads before dinner. Of course we did, but when mine arrived it might as well have been an unpleasant main course -- the Caesar was so overdressed that even calling it a salad was a stretch. It was a romaine casserole! Things didn't improve for me at dinner, when I had to make do with the virtually taste-free Tomato and Fresh Mozzarella Pasta, twisty noodles tossed with chunks of flavorless yellow and red tomatoes and cherry-sized balls of milky mozzarella.
Bob's steak, on the other hand, was a decently grilled and juicy 12-ounce strip, sided by hot, creamy mashed potatoes. Even better were Lou Jane's meaty, falling-off-the-bone barbecued pork ribs, slathered with a dark but profoundly sweet sauce.
As for dessert: I know better than to order a bananas Foster that isn't made tableside. Named after a regular customer at the venerable Brennan's in New Orleans, this dessert -- fresh bananas sautéed with rum, brown sugar and liqueur -- goes from beautifully caramelized to gummily inedible unless it's served immediately. Ours wasn't, and it tasted slimy instead of succulent.
I returned on a weekend night, this time with nondrinkers Peter and Marilyn, who looked at Fenton's casual dining room (no tablecloths, servers in T-shirts) through sober eyes and found it lacking. "This place has zero personality," Peter complained. "And the menu couldn't be more conventional."
But his interest was piqued by a low-carb dinner menu thrust at us by the hostess. Peter's eyes lit up at something called Honey Soy Kabobs. "It sounds deliciously healthy," he gushed. It sounded like dullsville to me. Peter didn't actually read the description before he ordered it, assuming the dish was made with tofu. But it turned out to be shrimp and beef brushed with a honey-and-soy-sauce marinade, skewered and grilled. It was surprisingly tasty.
I wish I could say the same for our appetizers that night: doughy pretzels coated with enough salt to melt Leawood streets after an ice storm (I gagged after a bite) and lightly fried Asian spring rolls weirdly accompanied by stone-ground mustard instead of the "homemade peanut sauce" listed on the menu. I flagged down that night's waiter -- a sweaty kid who never knew if he was coming or going -- and asked for peanut sauce. Fifteen minutes later, he remembered to bring it, shortly before informing me that my dinner would be a little late. "The chef didn't think the sauce on the pork chop looked right, so he made it again," he said.
In the meantime, he brought out Peter's kabobs, served with a bowl of creamed cauliflower as a "potato substitute" (one taste had me begging for french fries), and Marilyn's fish and chips. The latter dish, flaky cod fried in a luscious, light, wheat-ale batter, is one of the signature items at Fenton's (as it is in several other KC Hopps venues). Fussy Marilyn loved it. And although I had to watch my companions eat without me for a while, my grilled pork chop was worth waiting for: thick, juicy and flavorful. But the sleek, cornstarch-based "smoked apple and onion chutney" -- that's what it's called, anyway -- easily could have been omitted from the dish. Ditto the accompanying "hash" of chopped Idaho spuds and sweet potatoes.
For dessert, Peter nixed the restaurant's excellent hot brownie baked in an iron skillet so he could order the one dessert that wasn't actually made in the restaurant, a wedge of "Atkins Cheesecake" licensed by the diet doc's estate and sprinkled with far too much cinnamon. That extra spice was necessary, though, to hide the cheesecake's gluey flavorlessness. Life is too short to suffer through diet desserts. I say order the goddamned brownie.
The restaurant, less than a quarter full when we arrived, was hardly busier when we departed. I shook my head and noted that the prices weren't steep and the dining room was comfortable and clean. What gives?
"Maybe if I'd had a martini," Marilyn said, "this place wouldn't seem like such a bore."