Don't you want to buy some raffle tickets?"
I was standing in the front entrance of Frontier Steakhouse, waiting for the server, Patty, to run my credit card through the machine near the cash register. The raffle tickets, Patty explained, raised funds to benefit a children's charity — I can't remember which one — and the first prize was a handmade quilt made from Harley-Davidson T-shirts. It was hanging on a wall behind the counter.
Harley-Davidson is a big name at Frontier Steakhouse. Every Tuesday on the patio is "Biker Night," featuring $9 buckets of beer.
Only a dozen or so bikers were gathered outdoors last week, sipping cold brews and listening to Dennis Laffoon — a co-owner of the steakhouse — sing with his band. I tried to venture outside to hear the music, but it was too damned hot. "We're a lot busier," Patty confessed, "when the weather is nicer."
That didn't stop my friend Carol Ann from checking out the chopper-riding guys in the sticky humidity, while Bob, Linda, Richard and I stayed in the air-conditioned dining room, eavesdropping on a Harley-riding middle-aged blonde in a tank top as she held court in the middle of the room. To the regulars, she clearly was a celebrity.
"This is another world out here," Linda whispered as she looked around the paneled dining room, decorated with an eclectic array of nostalgic artwork, twinkling lights and Wild West memorabilia. The place is like the set of a TV Western but with the show's saloon in a 1960s basement rec room. Fair enough: The Laffoon family opened Frontier in 1960, a fact reflected in the restaurant's prices.
That night's 6-ounce filet mignon special, for example, was $8.99 and included a salad, a baked potato and rolls. A T-bone dinner goes for $16. The four-piece fried-chicken dinner (which also includes salad, potato, vegetable and rolls) is $12. For the past half-century, Mary Laffoon (who just turned 90) and her sons, Dennis and Ron, have served up home-style fare in a featureless, low-slung building.
The menu has hardly changed since Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the White House. There are steaks, fried chicken, turkey with dressing (only on Sundays), fried pork chops, catfish, shrimp and tenderloins. The side dishes are spuds, green beans, Jell-O salad topped with whipped cream, and pickled beets.
"This is the kind of food your grandma might have made," Richard said, "if your grandmother fried everything."
You don't have to love fried foods to enjoy dinner at the Frontier Steakhouse, but it probably helps. Richard noticed that the menu has a big order of chicken-fried steak and a smaller portion for diners who are 55 or older. "The smaller portion helps you live longer," he said when his dinner arrived: a crunchy beef cutlet drenched in thick, peppery gravy. I tasted the steak and found tender beef under that crunchy armor. The gravy was surprisingly punchy.
Black pepper is the spice of choice in Mary Laffoon's kitchen. The excellent fried chicken has a peppery, crispy breading that's just as tasty hot from the kitchen as it is cold, a neatly packed leftover from the night before. (I can make the same claim for the garlic toast, which is served in a plastic basket, hidden under dinner rolls.) The Laffoons claim that their fried chicken is the best in Wyandotte County; now that Granny's Chicken Ranch is gone, that may be accurate.
"Mary makes the rolls," Patty said proudly. They looked enough like sandwich buns that I split one of the yeasty flat rolls open and made a sandwich out of the roast beef on my dinner plate. It was juicy, pot-roast-style beef, slow-cooked and brushed with a modest dab of shiny brown gravy. I liked it well enough but was a lot more excited about the foil-wrapped baked potato, a perfectly baked spud that was light and fluffy and loaded with one of those creamy products designed to look and taste like butter.
But why quibble about the butter product when I'm also eating cherry Jell-O? Half a century ago, no one cared whether a foodstuff was natural or organic. Food was just supposed to taste good. That's still the guiding principle at Frontier, where healthy is a little salad colored with shredded carrots, cucumber slices, red cabbage and chopped purple onions. That's also as close as diners here get to vegetarian dining, though the deep-fried mozzarella sticks and the breaded mushrooms might count for some.
What isn't fried at Frontier is put under a crust. Mary Laffoon still bakes the restaurant's pies. There's a sassy gooseberry, but the house specialty is her peanut-butter pie, which sells out fast when she makes it. Her apple pie, loaded with tart, succulent apples under a flaky, light crust, isn't too sugary and counts among the city's best. The cherry pie is great, too.
"We could eat our pie and coffee out on the patio and listen to the music," Carol suggested, peering out the window at a well-muscled biker in a form-fitting gray T-shirt.
"You go ahead," I said, taking a cool swig of iced tea. "I'm not moving."
Though there was no central air conditioning in this building when the Laffoons first opened Frontier, there is now, and it's a modern technology I can't live without. I'm all for such old-fashioned dishes as meat and potatoes and Jell-O salad, but I have to eat them in 21st-century comfort. That's why I love this steakhouse — it's not so far out on the frontier that you can't go home after you pay your bill.