Acouple of months ago, I received a clever e-mail from a reader named Sarah Beasley, who told me that she had seen an advertisement for a new restaurant called Trolley's Downtown Bar & Grille and made the assumption that a "downtown grill" might be located, you know, in an urban setting. Her first thought was that this new joint must be in the Power & Light District, so she went to the restaurant's Web site to find out exactly where. And that's how she learned it's in a shopping development way out at 135th Street and Antioch.
So Sarah e-mailed the restaurant's owners to ask why the place was called "Downtown" when it wasn't even near downtown Overland Park. She got a nice response from one of the operating partners, Ryan MacDonald, who explained that the first Trolley's really was in an urban setting, on the first floor of a 19th-century building in downtown Springfield, Missouri.
"We put in our second location in Overland Park, simulating the 1920s and '30s of downtown Kansas City," MacDonald wrote. "Our concept has to do with feeling like you're downtown even though you may be in the suburbs. We want to not only focus in downtowns but also in the suburbs so everyone appreciates the historical significance of downtown cities."
Well, damn it, I want to appreciate the historical significance of downtown cities, too! But I'd prefer them closer to locations with a little actual history, not near a gigantic Hy-Vee halfway to Topeka. That said, the architecture of the new Power & Light District — that real historical location — reminds me a lot more of Overland Park than vintage Kansas City. So it all balances out in the end.
To create that "downtown feeling" on 135th Street, MacDonald and his three partners gutted the freestanding building that formerly housed a restaurant called Everett's. They proceeded to turn the dining room into a faux-brick courtyard with pretend façades of pint-sized buildings, including a bank, a movie theater (the neon marquee spells out "Gem" — a rather ironic touch in this predominantly Caucasian suburb) and a garage. Enlarged reproductions of vintage photographs show Kansas City's downtown in its glory days, when all the big department stores and movie palaces were still standing. And in one corner of the room, there's a good-sized screen showing old films such as Bogart's The Big Sleep, but without sound.
The interior looks more like a stage set — or a Vegas casino lobby — than any urban location, but that's why this make-believe downtown has genuine appeal in south Johnson County. (It would seem contrived and idiotic at 14th Street and Grand.) I was actually charmed by the concept of Trolley's Downtown Bar & Grill, despite the underwhelming experience I had there one afternoon, when lunch included shepherd's pie that was stingy on the pot roast and heavy on sleek Yukon-gold mashed potatoes that the waiter confirmed were not made in this joint's kitchen.
Things improved dramatically when I went back for dinner, towing along some real urban dwellers: Ned, Bob and Carol Ann. Walking into the restaurant, they immediately jumped to the conclusion that it would be a corporate cookie-cutter operation. But once we settled into our upholstered booth — a cozy cubicle constructed of pretend bricks — we decided that the place was too eccentric to dislike. The lighting was soft (Carol Ann noticed that the "streetlights" had mismatched bulbs), and despite all the hard surfaces, it wasn't terribly noisy. A 1930s Technicolor short, set in Los Angeles' old Cocoanut Grove nightclub, played silently on the movie screen while, across the room, a lively party of diners was celebrating a birthday party under the Gem marquee. Meanwhile, disco hits by Donna Summer and Michael Jackson played on the sound system.