Supposedly, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. In the case of J.L. Stephenson — son of Loyd Stephenson, one of the twin brothers who founded the iconic Stephenson's Old Apple Farm Restaurant — the apple has fallen quite a distance.
The younger Stephenson, who goes by the name Steve, made headlines last month when he took over a defunct strip-mall saloon, the Santa Fe Inn in Raytown. Stephenson cleaned up the space, put up family photographs and artwork from the former Stephenson's restaurant, and renamed the joint J.L. Stephenson's Santa Fe Inn.
And then — here's the hook — Steve Stephenson handed his chef a few of the beloved recipes from the more famous Stephenson's restaurant, which closed in the spring of 2007 after a half-century of serving brisket, baked chicken, green rice casserole, and the best apple pie in town.
My friend Georgina, who had been a customer at the original Stephenson's since its earliest days (Loyd and Les Stephenson started the business as a 10-booth luncheonette in 1946), was dying to try out the new place. Like many Kansas Citians of a certain age, she had fond memories of the Old Apple Farm, a creaky labyrinth of "theme" rooms (the Cupboard, the Pantry, the Back Porch) serving homestyle food with a heavy emphasis on the forbidden fruit grown in the adjoining orchard. There were apple fritters, apple dumplings, apple daiquiris.
I had a twinge of nostalgia for the old place, too, but only because the dining rooms were kind of kitschy and fun and the menu featured dishes that are rarely seen anymore: marshmallow salad, frozen fruit salad, Parker House rolls, chicken baked in butter and heavy cream. But the years hadn't been kind to Stephenson's. By the end, its décor had grown shabby, and the food quality and service had slipped considerably.
Georgina pestered me until I agreed to drive out to the Santa Fe Inn one night with Bob and Truman. We were ushered from the front door, past the original restaurant's old black-and-white celebrity snapshots (sportscaster Frank Gifford in his hunkier days and George Lindsey, who played Goober Pyle on The Andy Griffith Show) to the "formal" dining room. Formal in the sense that gilt-framed paintings hung on the wall, but the vinyl-covered tables were set with paper napkins. On the bar side, within spitting distance of the tiny kitchen, were more booths and tables — and a bartender with a cotton-candy coiffure who looked like a young Loni Anderson. Where's her picture, I wanted to know?
"It's a sweet little place," Georgina said as she bit into one of the sweet fried fritters, coated with confectioner's sugar, that arrived at the table before we'd had the chance to order a drink. The waitress warned us that the fritters were messy, and Georgina's black sweater was spattered with powdered sugar after two bites. She tried brushing it off.
The McGuire Sisters' 1954 hit, "Sincerely," played over the sound system as the server brought out our starters: a plastic basket filled with deep-fried onion rings (and ranch dressing) and another with fried "corn nuggets." If this was the new home of the Stephenson family's famous recipes, there weren't very many of them. The menu was downright tiny: three appetizers, six entrées, a few salads and sandwiches, and five side dishes. Our waitress had never worked at the old Stephenson's but was thrilled to be part of this new place. "It's a big deal out here," she told us. "There aren't a lot of fancy restaurants in Raytown. Just Applebee's."
Truman nearly choked on his vodka martini — J.L. Stephenson's place ain't so fancy. Plates were Melmac (go ahead, look it up), and the salads — not so good — came with cellophane-wrapped crackers. We did get Parker House rolls, though, just like the old place.
Our dinners, I'm afraid to say, weren't anything like the old place, even at the end when the Apple Farm had become a caricature of itself. Truman's baked chicken bore no resemblance to the rich, creamy dish of the original Stephenson's. "It's a little dry and salty," Truman sniffed, "and the side dishes are cold."
And odd! Texas Potatoes seemed to be a combination of melted cheese and defrosted hash browns (mine were lukewarm). Stephenson's famous green rice casserole, fluffy but tasteless, seemed naked without the pewter-style serving dishes from the old place. That night's vegetable du jour, a zucchini casserole, was one of the least attractive ways I've ever seen of preparing that boring squash.
I had the fried tilapia, which wasn't too bad if you like your fish cooked within an inch of its life. Georgina's beef brisket turned out to be pretty good, even though she got stone-ground mustard instead of the horseradish sauce she had requested. Bob used the mustard on his thick and meaty smoked pork chops.
"It's a truck stop," Georgina concluded, pushing her plate away. "I hope they still have the apple pie with brandy sauce. That was mentioned in the newspaper article."
They had the pie but no brandy sauce.
"We go through a lot of it," our server said cheerfully. Georgina glared at her. Bob ate the pie. As we left, the Alvin and the Chipmunks tune "Witch Doctor" was playing.
"This place needs a witch doctor," Georgina said.
Franklin and I returned a week later and were seated in the bar near lovely Loni. Franklin had a direct view of the kitchen and whispered, "Our waitress drops a lot of things."
Not a good omen.
Deciding to stick with simple fare, we both had a cup of navy bean soup — it might have been good if the beans had been completely cooked. Franklin ordered a cheeseburger, which arrived with a basket of greasy, limp french fries. I had the "famous" fried pork-tenderloin sandwich, which would have lived up to that billing in any unpretentious diner in town. It did come with horseradish mayo — light on the horseradish.
"I don't get it," Franklin said, looking around. "I think this place is terrible, but everyone around us seems to be having the time of their life. Am I missing something?"
All I knew was that I was missing the Old Apple Farm. I wanted marshmallow salad, real baked chicken, and servers who were attentive and in control (not the friendly but frazzled young lady in the Hawaiian shirt who was trying hard but made the meal stressful, not comforting).
What I was missing, I couldn't have. The cobbled-together creation called J.L. Stephenson's Santa Fe Inn is trying, on the one hand, to do homage to the owner's family restaurant and, on the other, to be a no-frills neighborhood saloon that serves hearty Midwestern cooking. But the peculiar charm of the original Stephenson's Apple Farm can't be revived. It's history.
Maybe my expectations were too high, because the other customers clearly liked the place. Call me the crabby apple.
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