Conrad's Restaurant & Alehouse is almost certainly the biggest dining operation in Liberty. (The place used to be a CVS pharmacy.) It's also clearly a prototype for the kind of combination restaurant and saloon that plays well in various suburbs. I have no trouble picturing another, equally big Conrad's in Olathe or in Lee's Summit.
Shawn Conrad Barber, you see, knows a few things about the restaurant business. For decades, his parents ran the downtown-KC diner Connie's, located from 1968 to 2002 in the Argyle Building (12th Street and McGee), and satellite versions of the same operation in Jefferson City, Missouri, and Sioux City, Iowa. Barber chose a different path, working as a professional photographer. (Back in the 1990s, he was a co-worker of mine at a now-defunct newspaper.) But he has come around to the idea that there might be more money in pork chops than in family portraits.
No one can say he hasn't thought big. Barber has divided the former retail space in two, installing a family-friendly, modestly priced dining room on one side and a noisier, livelier (and much larger) lounge on the other. The latter, where the majority of Barber's clientele seems to end up, is dominated by a long bar that has 21 beers on tap. (Barber says he plans to add 20 more taps next month.) There are pool tables, a semi-enclosed patio, TV screens and an interactive golf game. The Alehouse side serves the same menu the dining room does.
On both of my visits, I chose to sit in the less raucous restaurant, which isn't always less noisy. During my first visit, so many small children were packed into the dining room that I feared I'd been escorted into a Chuck E. Cheese by mistake. Apparently, Liberty has a lot of young families who have been waiting for a place that offers the alluring combination of children's menus and $3 glasses of sangria (during the longish happy hour, from 3 to 7 p.m.).
That's not really my scene. But one afternoon, I found myself at liberty in Liberty (visiting with my overburdened accountant, if you must know) and unexpectedly hungry. From a shopping strip on Highway 291, Conrad's beckoned, offering a more dignified solution than the CiCi's Pizza in the same center.
Even from the outside, Conrad's looks cavernous — nearly the length of a Wal-Mart, I'm telling you. The interior of the dining room is a little clubby — stone walls and dark wood — with a few mounted canvases (you could call them art if you're feeling generous), silk-screened with restaurant platitudes. One reads: "Dining is and always was a great artistic opportunity." Architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who never lived to see the age of the highway-ramp strip mall, is credited with that statement. Would he have ordered the $11.99 chicken piccata at Conrad's? It does, after all, come with two side dishes.
My server that evening was a willowy young woman who brought an ecstatic fervor to her descriptions of the better dishes at Conrad's. The menu at this restaurant hews closely to comfort-food favorites — a Cajun-style pasta with andouille sausage and a Chablis sauce is about as exotic as Conrad's gets. She didn't suggest anything especially elaborate, so her advice was pretty much on point.
There are a couple of steaks priced over $20, including an aged 8-ounce filet mignon — it was as tender and perfectly grilled as something from a proper steakhouse. But on my first visit, I decided to order what the couple at the next table seemed very satisfied with: a 10-ounce top sirloin, served with two side dishes, for $16. I've always believed that any joint that can make a cheap steak taste good can do almost anything right, and Conrad's does indeed serve a fine slab of budget beef. What I tried was nearly fork-tender and grilled precisely as I'd ordered it.
My server's guidance went sideways, though, when she steered me toward a "topper" for my steak. The house-made crab cake that came out was nearly as big as the steak, a hefty little puck made with far too much breading and a fearsome amount of black pepper.
"Didn't you like your crab cake?" she asked when she came for the plate. "It's one of our specialties."
I don't know what this "specialty" says about the culinary tastes of Liberty, but it was one of the few misfires I tasted at Conrad's. The grilled applewood shrimp appetizer was another, but only because the five tiny shrimp looked marooned on a big appetizer plate. They needed a saucer.
Far more satisfying were the boneless, bacon-wrapped pork chops, succulent and moist and blanketed with a savory apple-and-bacon chutney. They were particularly good with a mound of creamy mashed potatoes (the real thing) and sautéed fresh broccoli. It was no surprise that the macaroni and cheese here comes in a big portion, but I was pleasantly shocked by its tastiness. Under a crispy crust, the sauce of cheddar, mozzarella, parmesan and pepper jack was delicious.
My dining companion another night, a Johnson Countian who self-identifies as a food snob, was wary of Conrad's from the first minute. "Everyone here is wearing shoes from Payless," she whispered. But in the end, she gave her filet mignon a full-throated endorsement. She also loved the green beans and had the highest praise for a generous hunk of house-made carrot cake. (Baked by Barber's stepmother, it's one of the few desserts at Conrad's made in-house.)
"I think a restaurant like this would do well in Johnson County," she told me. "The food is really very good."
Barber knows this already and would like to extend his brand over the border. But, he told me later, "I've got to get this first one up and running at full speed first."
So far, so good. I'd rethink that peppery crab cake, of course, and I don't know if Leawoodites are prepared to view tortilla chips as a "side dish." But Conrad's is solid, and it has the kind of potential that transcends the tastes of any one 'burb. It's worth keeping an eye on — a Conrad's could be coming to a strip center near you.