A person's life can be measured in restaurant choices. You start merrily at Chuck E. Cheese, progress to the hipster joint du jour (why, hello there, Extra Virgin), settle into a middle age of comfort food, and wind up on a fixed income with the early bird special at Waid's.
That's an unrelentingly grim future, so I'm going to enjoy the comfort food while it lasts — and eat more of it at Houlihan's than I'd once planned.
I know, I know: It's a chain, one that some may be unable to distinguish from, say, Kansas City–based Applebee's. But the neighborhood-bar-and-grill concept owes much to Houlihan's, which pretty much devised the template, and the Fairway location is a fine place to drown regrets in ranch dressing and rib sauce.
That there's a Houlihan's in Fairway is an accident of local restaurant history. You may recall that the flagship Houlihan's restaurant — the one that moved into Tom Houlihan's men's clothing shop in 1972 — was banished from the Country Club Plaza in 2002. (It operates today, across the state line, in a building that once was a movie theater and then a series of failed restaurant concepts, including a festive little café where, decades ago, I was fired for being too covetous of the desserts.)
Where were the howls of protest, like those that greeted the proposed façade of the new Seasons 52? Where were the Plaza guardians' anguished cries over this indignity? Well, the exile predated Facebook, for one thing. More important, it happened at a low point in the Houlihan's timeline. The menu had become a culinary caricature of its former self, with no standouts to mourn. So the Plaza space, from which the Gilbert/Robinson empire was launched, gave way to a truly mediocre chain restaurant, the California Pizza Kitchen.
Bill Gilbert, one of the co-founders of Houlihan's, says the success of that first establishment was mostly about luck: "We were in the right place at the right time." He's right. Houlihan's Old Place, as it was called then, combined the sexy insouciance of a singles bar with a comfortably casual dining room. It was heavy on the nostalgia décor, a popular theme of the 1970s (the decade that gave us The Waltons, Happy Days and Bette Midler) that unfortunately has stayed glued to pretty much every chain to come along since. But what really made Houlihan's Old Place was its food, a menu that grafted drive-thru favorites (hot dogs, burgers, shakes, banana splits) with continental cuisine (quiche, escargot, crepes). It was everything a baby boomer could want.
The newer, sleeker incarnations of the restaurants — the "Old Place" part of the name and the treehouse décor fell off years ago — are now as unexciting as the dullsville cafés and cafeterias that Houlihan's helped make obsolete in the Nixon era. But the Fairway restaurant exudes the memory of the original, and it has what its sister suburban locations lack: vitality.
Not everyone agrees with me. A friend of mine insists that it's actually a secret refuge for the gold-chain-wearing, silk-shirt-unbuttoning extras from the Plaza's Saturday Night Fever days. "The men have had their hips replaced and their eyes done, and they're still prowling at the bar like they did 40 years ago," the friend says. "Only now, it's really embarrassing."
Fine, I've seen a little bit of that. And, yes, it's embarrassing because the Fairway restaurant has one of the most attractive young serving staffs in town. When some leathery gramps starts making a move on a tipsy 30-year-old blonde at the bar, it's funny ... until it's sickening. Young people do, in fact, dine here. But more of them should.