We had been on the road more than twenty minutes, far too long for my passengers. Jeff and my friend Bob, both die-hard Midtowners, could barely conceal their contempt for the suburbs' glut of cookie-cutter restaurants.
"This place is different," I said. "It's not a franchise. It's owned by two men who actually work in the restaurant."
Those two owners are not, however, Nick and Jake; Doug Watkins and Kevin Timmons named the joint in honor of their sons and patterned it after successful concept restaurants where they had been employees (or, in Watkins' case, an owner) in Atlanta. They clearly know what they're doing; the place has been packed since this summer, when they first shoved open the heavy, glass-paned doors. It's been so busy, in fact, that no matter what night I visited, the perky hostesses at the front desk were passing out coaster-shaped vibrating pagers as fast as they could to the hungry throngs in the foyer.
On my first visit, there was a one-hour wait. I didn't stick around. The next two times I was smarter: Nick and Jake's won't take a reservation, but you can call ahead and put your name on the waiting list. I called on my cell phone both times, just as I was inching the car out of my Brookside driveway. Upon arriving, we waited barely ten minutes for a table.
I can't vouch for the noisy, smoky bar half of the restaurant -- which boasts no fewer than 28 TV sets, all of them tuned to sports stations. But the more demure dining rooms on the other side are comfortably attractive in an imitation Frank Lloyd Wright-Prairie style, with pale plank floors and dark woodwork. And every table and booth seems to be occupied by tastefully dressed, artfully coifed and well-manicured suburban dwellers.
In a different time and place, Nick and Jake's might have opened -- and succeeded -- downtown. With its sophisticated cocktail selection and an interesting menu, the free-standing neighborhood eatery would be just as welcome in the culinary no-man's land north of the I-70 loop as it is in a Johnson County strip mall. With Ella Fitzgerald and Tommy Dorsey playing over the sound system and black-and-white vintage photographs depicting places like the old stockyards and Harry Truman at the long-razed Municipal Stadium, Nick and Jake's tries to evoke Kansas City's glory days.
Besides, the boisterous, good-natured place is predictably, soothingly Midwestern, with aged steaks, excellent slow-smoked ribs, giant portions of side dishes and overwhelming desserts.
Bob and Jeff, however, weren't easily swayed. We all studied the couple in the booth directly across from us: he, square-jawed, broad-shouldered; she, lean as a runway model and as beautiful.
"I always feel so unwashed in Johnson County," sighed the fastidious Jeff, who teaches at an inner-city school and whose reverse snobbism almost never allows him to venture south of 75th Street.
It's not as if there aren't plenty of third-rate eating spots (corporate and otherwise) in Midtown, after all. But the suburbs often get an unfairly bum rap in the dining department. Admittedly, not every dish scores at Nick and Jake's, but the fare is vastly better than a few of its franchised contemporaries, even on the Plaza. For example, that ubiquitous and boring appetizer known as creamy spinach dip actually has zest and style here, its thick cheese bulked up by bits of smoked bacon and sun-dried tomatoes, the accompanying corn chips hot and crispy. Grilled shrimp are wrapped in bacon and drenched in the restaurant's signature barbecue sauce, which is mildly spiced with a citrusy undertone; they're sided by a big spoonful of creamy grits, which might sound tasty but doesn't quite work on the plate. I was even less impressed by the plate of flash-fried calamari, served in ersatz "Oriental" fashion with pieces of red and green peppers and doused in an unpleasantly gummy sweet-and-sour sauce.
The kitchen does better with the less-fancy stuff. Soups are real Mom-style creations, such as a steak soup thick with ground rib eye and tenderloin, carrots and corn. Salads come stacked with tomato bits, grated cheese, crumbled bacon and croutons bigger than doorknobs ("How do you eat them?" Jeff wondered), their dressings served neatly on the side in china ramekins.
Bob had no problem figuring out what to do with his steak special, a luscious 22-ounce porterhouse glazed in a punchy bourbon marinade. And I was just as pleased with a plate of perfectly grilled, equally hefty twin pork chops. Unfortunately, while the veal-and-wild-mushroom meatloaf sounded intriguing, what ended up on the table was an oversized, lukewarm slab so tasteless even a brandy sauce couldn't revive it.
Nearly all the meat dishes arrive with real -- and hot, I'm happy to say -- mashed potatoes, decked out with bits of fried onion rings. But the average serving size of them here is a mass nearly the size of Lee's Summit. Thank goodness some dishes offer alternatives: The superb Smothered Chicken (barely visible under a blanket of sliced shitake mushrooms and an intoxicating port wine sauce) is blessed by a heap of angel-hair pasta. But the herb-marinated Grandma Pat's Chicken is burdened by another mound of grits not lively enough to balance a basic grilled breast splashed with a "smoked gouda cream sauce" that is neither smoky nor cheesy.
I also wish that the contempo pot pie had lived up to its potential. In this version of the old standby, roast chicken pieces, carrots, celery, peas and mushrooms luxuriate atop a dense potato crust. Instead of the traditional pastry-top crust, this visually stunning variation is topped with two pyramids of flaky puff pastry. But the dish was bland even by comfort-food standards.
On the other hand, the desserts are not only comforting but as lush and sexy as a Jayne Mansfield pinup. A slab of "Towering Chocolate Cake" isn't made in the restaurant's kitchen but imported from a local baker who must have been trained at General Motors: Multiple layers of moist cake are trimmed with a dense chocolate icing to form a dessert so big that, if it had wheels, it could pass for an SUV. The coconut cream pie is a double-decker affair of coconut custard and whipped cream in a light, buttery crust. The sundae comes stuffed into a massive goblet, ice cream piled on top of a warm brownie rich with melted chocolate drops. Like the other desserts, it's big enough for three but inspires selfishness.
The two-fisted desserts are reason alone for hungry Midtowners to make the journey to this suburban oasis. The servers are engaging and, if anything, overly friendly. And, unlike Midtown, it's easy enough to find a parking spot. Even after dark, it's not that scary!