Sometimes a restaurant needs to make a fresh start, too. That's why restaurateur Dan Dannaldson recently gave his cozy little dining room in downtown Lee's Summit a new name, Dan's Place. It's the third incarnation for the joint. When he opened the business in 1993, Dannaldson had higher aspirations and called it The Bistro. A couple of years ago, he decided that blues music was having a renaissance, so he changed the name (and the menu) and reopened as Chick-N-Blues.
Servers still answer the phone "Chick-N Blues" but quickly add "Dan's Place," as if it were all one long title. Dannaldson says it was time for a name change when too many customers called to ask if the venue was a blues club. It wasn't.
So Dannaldson dropped the blues but kept the pan-fried chicken, which is still the restaurant's calling card. It's good ol' plump and juicy fried chicken, served with three side dishes, including mashed potatoes, fried okra, macaroni and cheese, and sweet-potato fries.
"The Bistro was more highfalutin, if I remember," said my friend Yvette, opening a tiny plastic cup of ranch dressing to splash on her salad greens. "They were more upscale, with steaks and stuff."
The only steak on the small, laminated menu is country-fried and topped with country gravy. It costs less than ten bucks and is listed in the "Country Dinners" section of the evening menu, right under, naturally, country meatloaf, breaded catfish and fried shrimp.
Country seems to be the recurring theme at Dan's Place, which at least sets the place apart from the corporate chain restaurants none of them particularly fancy, by the way that are popping up like deep-fried mushrooms throughout the burgeoning Lee's Summit suburbs. Dannaldson has kept some of his framed posters of jazz greats (including Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong) from the restaurant's previous guise, but the rest of the décor might have been culled from the new Dukes of Hazzard movie, replete with a life-sized scarecrow, artificial chickens, checked vinyl tablecloths and an American flag.
It's fancier than a dinette and more family-focused than a saloon, but Dan's Place couldn't be more of a throwback to the mid-20th century. It is located in the heart of Lee's Summit's original two-block "downtown," which is just far enough removed from the new housing developments and bustling shopping centers to give it an almost Mayberry RFD flavor. I wouldn't have been surprised if Yvonne had told me that Goober Pyle and Barney Fife were polishing off a plate of fried chicken livers at the next table. You know, sitting off in the corner, under the scarecrow.
We were doing a pretty good job on those chicken livers ourselves. They were incredibly tender under a crackling armor of fried batter and served with a nice big cup of cream gravy. We had to ask the waitress for side plates so we could share the livers. She brought out saucers instead an idiosyncrasy that made sense in this throwback restaurant. Dan's Place doesn't concern itself with fussy details; it's all about giant portions of old-fashioned fare chicken and dumplings, fettuccine Alfredo, pork tenderloin sandwiches that have fallen out of favor with a diet- and cholesterol-obsessed generation.
Not all of those country-fried dishes are terrific. The pork tenderloin sandwich Yvette ordered was so tough, she finally gave up trying to chew it. "But the breading was good," she said brightly. My friend Bob ventured into more sophisticated territory with something called spinach-artichoke chicken, which turned out to be a grilled chicken breast covered with that bland spinach-artichoke dip you see on every menu in town. His verdict? "It's, uh, different," he said, smiling wanly.
A few nights later, I had the bright idea to bring Gia to the restaurant for her birthday celebration. Gia lives in Lee's Summit but had never heard of Dan's Place or Chick-N-Blues. But she was game, so she came along with her 10-year-old son, Johnny. Bob, who loves all the retro dishes on Dannaldson's menu, had insisted on coming along again. It was a milestone birthday for the usually health-conscious Gia, who immediately turned to the "Lighter Dinners" section of the menu to see what the less fattening dishes might be. She burst into laughter. "A half-order of fried chicken livers," she rattled off, almost in disbelief, "or the two-piece 'lite' fried chicken dinner."
I told her that this was the kind of diet menu that really excited me. But as if to lure us out of the fryer and into the fire, the waitress brought us a basket of corn fritters, little nuggets of deep-fried creamed corn. Bob popped one in his mouth and was in deep-fried nirvana. "These are incredible," he insisted. "I could eat a whole basket of them by myself." Sensing that he had been dared, he did.
Bob had heard that Dannaldson's chicken was comparable to the bird served at the legendary Stroud's, so he and Gia and Johnny all ordered it, practically salivating as they waited. Wanting something a little less fattening, I made a more sensible dining choice: baked chicken and homemade dumplings smothered in cream gravy served over a mound of buttery mashed potatoes. My kind of diet plate.
I'm happy to report that at Dan's Place, the fried chicken really is worth crowing about. The pieces are huge, moist and flavorful under a crisp, golden crust. The side dishes are the stuff you really crave with a fab fowl feast smoky baked beans, creamy macaroni and cheese, hearty red beans and rice.
My order of chicken and dumplings was a small Matterhorn of steaming potatoes heaped with chunks of white meat, silken gravy and the fluffiest dumplings. I honestly don't know how I managed to eat it all, but by some miracle I cleaned my plate.
If it hadn't been Gia's birthday, I would have nixed dessert as an excessive gesture, but she wanted to try the crème brûlée, and at Johnny's suggestion, I felt I could share a modest bite or two of the brownie sundae. We lost interest in the funnel cake listed on the menu (a rarity in any local restaurant) when we heard it was a premade item.
The crème brûlée was kind of the Grand Ole Opry version of the Parisian confection. It was actually a light, home-style egg custard, but the waitress made a flamboyant show of running over to the table with a blowtorch (the kind generally used for welding copper pipes) and burning the granulated sugar sprinkled on the custard to form a caramelized crust that smelled heavenly.
"It's labor-intensive," she confessed," but when the aroma permeates the dining room, everyone wants one."
The fragrance of burning sugar aside, I wouldn't order one again, but two other desserts that fudgy brownie topped with an oversized scoop of vanilla ice cream, and a towering cube of warm bread pudding (not too custardy but very fluffy) deserve repeat performances.
So does Dan's Place, which for all I know may have changed its name again by now. But no matter what you call the joint, it's a damn good little chicken shack.