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.
I don't think it counts as an early bird special, but a recent special drew me in: After 4 p.m. Thursday, the Fairway restaurant has been offering a "complimentary 5- to 6-ounce cold-water lobster tail or five jumbo shrimp with the purchase of a steak entrée." Nice, but I ended up picking a cheaper offering one night: a trio of sliders. Among them was a mini veggie burger, a tasty black-bean-and-chickpea patty that was overloaded with slaw called "ranch-style greens." I also liked the cute little hot dog smothered in Chicago-style neon-green relish, but the star of the plate was a small pot-roast sandwich. The fried onions on top were extraneous; it was delicious by itself.
Houlihan's has always been a price-conscious chain, and the manager of the Fairway spot says a new menu is in the works. "More upscale," he says. I hope upscale doesn't mean more expensive. The one constant in the long identity crisis at Houlihan's is that prices have remained accessible. There aren't many restaurants where your dad can get a good meatloaf dinner, with Yukon Gold mashers and vegetables, for $12 or you can buy your date a small — but not too small — dish of excellent macaroni and cheese for $6.25.
As it was even in the Old Place days, the menu is a likable hodgepodge of familiar bar food (burgers, salads, fried starters) and the unexpected. Some of the old standbys are still damn good. The French onion soup, under a thick blanket of provolone, is practically meaty. Sure, gruyere would be nicer (I'd even take the gouda used for the "farmhouse club" sandwich), but I don't write the recipes here. And I'm sure everyone likes provolone better, right?
"Our stuffed mushroom caps have been a signature item here since 1972," bragged our waiter, who probably thinks that dinosaurs roamed the Earth that year. I have to be in the right mood to tackle one of these frighteningly large fungi — we're talking a mushroom with 'roid rage — stuffed with cream cheese, battered and deep-fried. You can make an economical meal of them, if not a very healthy one. (For the record, the only mushroom caps on the menu back then were stuffed with escargot. What were we all thinking?)
Houlihan's has usually had some vegetarian options, perhaps owing to the recovering hippies in its original customer base. (Back then, the granola types protested wars, not Wall Street.) Plenty of the 99-percenters would order the wild-mushroom enchiladas. They're one of the best things on the menu, with smoky and earthy mushrooms under melted queso fresco. (So much nicer than the greasy provolone. Do you really like provolone better?)
In Kansas City, it's heresy for Houlihan's to serve barbecued baby back ribs. That's the kind of between-quotation-marks barbecue that diners in other cities and suburbs get, never knowing what the real thing should taste like. But the menu description sounded so good, I ordered them — twice. And neither time did I get a slab that was tender or succulent. Wrong place, wrong time, I guess.
Where Houlihan's has charted significant progress over the years is its dessert list. I've always been a sucker for this chain's chocolate-cappuccino cake, frosted with foolhardy generosity (perhaps to help cover occasional dryness in the cake itself), and the crème brûlée is now runny only about half the time. You can order a trio of pint-sized versions of the desserts, including those two; and the miniature pecan pie, caramel-rich and fabulous, is the new star.
I refuse to say that this is the Houlihan's phase of my life. But if I admitted to being middle-aged and in need of comfort food, I would admit a strong desire to eat here. In terms of price, ambience and service, the Fairway restaurant exerts real appeal. Exciting? No. "But after the first martini," says a friend who can recall those long-gone days of hipness, "no one gives a damn." Some things never change.