I thought about that one afternoon as I was having lunch at the new George Brett's on the Plaza. I'd heard that he spends some time there, pressing flesh at the bar and even buying a round of drinks for favored patrons. But I'd eaten there three times without seeing Brett in his namesake place.
"Does he ever sign autographs for customers?" I asked our server, a clean-cut young man in a pressed Oxford shirt. "Well, if customers ask us to get one for them, we tell them that we're not allowed to do that," the waiter said as he set a cheeseburger in front of me. "Sometimes he'll sign them if customers ask. But other times, people will come up to the bar and ask for an autograph, and he'll give them a look and they'll just give up."
The celebrity business, like the restaurant industry, has changed over the years. Jack Dempsey's restaurant (which closed thirty years ago) wasn't merely an investment for the retired boxer -- it was his life and his livelihood. But Brett is lucky -- and savvy -- enough to have a life and a career outside this bar and dining room.
Besides, it doesn't matter if the flesh-and-blood Brett is ever in the slick, new restaurant; the place is a tastefully designed tribute to his legacy and personality: the framed photographs; the trophies and memorabilia; even the menus, with Brett's distinctive signature printed across a silver square. This is no second-rate sports bar or smoky saloon. Rather, it's a sophisticated and expensively mounted entertainment venue. The floors on the bar side are polished blond wood, matching the rest of the creamy walls and trim in the adjoining room, which is carpeted in soft celery-green, the same shade as the painted trim floating above the silvery display cases, each like something in an upscale jewelry store but exhibiting instead a selection of autographed balls, helmets or boxing gloves. It's a museum celebrating Kansas City's sporting history (but not as enthusiastically as Chappell's in Kansas City North, which has many more historical treasures), with the primary focus naturally being on the most golden Royal of his generation.
Without knowing a thing about George Brett's opinions or politics, a diner can stroll around and learn a lot: The photograph of George with the first President Bush hangs above the framed fan letter from Richard Nixon.
"George is a good friend of Rush Limbaugh's, too," said my friend Cindy, who was nibbling on a slab of dry-looking meatloaf that had come with a mound of sautéed green beans and red-pepper straws. I snagged a bite of her meatloaf, hoping it wouldn't taste as spongy as it looked. It did. Very ordinary.
The food here is hit-and-miss. Because the menu was developed in the corporate kitchen of the Haddad Restaurant Group -- not exactly the pinnacle of culinary creativity -- it stays on the safe side: pizzas, sandwiches, salads, a handful of dinners and three cuts of steak. One doesn't expect a sports bar to be noteworthy as a fine-dining venue, and indeed, the nachos, chicken fingers, ribs, salmon and roasted chicken at George Brett's aren't any fancier than the fare at Mickey Mantle's in New York. The last time I ate at Mickey's joint, though, the duck quesadillas were a lot more interesting than the tired chicken version at Brett's. Pizza choices here are baked on the same kind of cracker crusts as those at Fedora, the restaurant that preceded Brett's in this space, and they taste pretty much the same (though the 24-inch version is now served atop two glass bricks instead of the olive-oil cans favored by Fedora).
My friend Bob, who was on staff at Fedora when it opened twenty years ago, mourned the loss of the once-glamorous Plaza restaurant but cheered George Brett's for erasing any memory of that Gilbert-Robinson innovation.
"The place has its own personality now, and that's a good thing," he said as he picked up one of the "mini burgers" (a featured appetizer borrowed from an old Houlihan's menu) from a plate of four little cheeseburgers, all of them overcooked and ridiculously dry. The chicken quesadilla, though hefty and loaded with melted cheese, was equally unmemorable. One afternoon, I shared a plate of crunchy, hot jumbo fried shrimp with a couple of friends in the bar and enjoyed them a lot, but that sports-bar standard can't be hobbled too badly.
Where George Brett's scores is with the simple amenities. The prices are reasonable, the service is extremely friendly, and the place is as clean and polished as the museum that it is.
The less-complicated fare is the best. I liked the grilled Reuben panini, heaped with corned beef and sauerkraut and served with addictive potato chips fried in the kitchen. And the sliced filet-mignon sandwich was piled with tender meat on a soft torpedo roll along with lots of sautéed mushrooms, onions and roasted red peppers.
The oddest choice on the menu is something called the "Surf & Turf Cold Plate," a stingy array of three chilled shrimp, three bite-sized slabs of thick roast beef, six paper-thin slices of cheddar cheese and four wedges of fresh pineapple. It's not a lunch; it's a snack plate. And it needed a side order of those chips to pull it together, carbs be damned.
Ten sweets are on the dessert list, including that staple of every New York sports bar since Jack Dempsey's, New York cheesecake. Here it's called Kansas City-style cheesecake, which makes little sense -- if there's any city without a cheesecake tradition, it's this one. But one bite told the real story: It was as fluffy as a Jell-O-mix cheesecake, but gummier. And although the menu insists that the dessert is "topped with fresh strawberries," it isn't. Not that our waitress had any idea. She had to go back to the kitchen and ask before returning with this confession: "It's, uh, strawberry purée." And frozen to boot.
But who gives a damn about fresh berries when the real star of this shiny new celebriteria isn't the food? After all, no one walks out of the Hard Rock Café singing the praises of its overpriced and underwhelming cuisine. The real attraction at a Hard Rock is its signature T-shirt. George Brett's has a nice assortment of apparel, too, tucked behind the hostess station. But the place needs a much bigger retail area. Why eat at Brett's tourist trap if you can't walk out in a full uniform, embroidered with Brett's signature?