I've never quite understood the institution's long-standing reputation, particularly among members of the tourist set who act as though eating a rib-eye dinner there is a culinary pilgrimage to a holy shrine. Compared to many other local steakhouses, the original Hereford House comes off as slightly shabby and second-rate. The food, however, has improved a bit over the past couple of years. I wonder whether that's because, as the Hereford House empire expands, the newer restaurants have far more style and panache than the old codger on 20th Street. All Hereford House restaurants use the same menu, but because each of the four outposts is a distinct step up in class, the food has taken a comparable step, too.
That's especially noticeable at the two-month-old Hereford House at Zona Rosa. The newest addition to Rod Anderson's collection of restaurants (which also includes Pierpont's and the Union Café at Union Station) is one of the most attractive. But the 230-seat venue in the heart of the Northland's artfully contrived Zona Rosa shopping village is more than just a pretty face. Service there is impeccable, and chef Richard Perry (who moved over from the Leawood location) is a stickler for getting food out of his kitchen while it's hot and making sure the portions are obscenely huge.
Although it's less than a year old, Zona Rosa is already crammed with restaurants (less one spectacular failure, the Flat Wok Mongolian Barbecue, which was open for barely two months). Most of them are national chain operations, such as the Outback Steakhouse and the yet-to-open Ted's Montana Grill. But Anderson isn't concerned about these lower-priced beef vendors horning in on his territory. "We have a more upscale concept," he says. "Not so much in terms of price but most assuredly in the sense of a dining experience."
I don't always agree with Anderson's pronouncements, but in this case he's right on the money. This Hereford House starts earning high marks as soon as patrons step up to the cowhide-wrapped front desk and encounter savvy hosts -- who actually seem to have received some training, unlike their counterparts at other Zona Rosa restaurants. The place looks terrific, with massive iron-and-glass light fixtures, dark woodwork, a patterned carpet and prairie-style oil landscapes. Defying most corporate dining conventions, this steakhouse takes dinner reservations (my new barometer for dining with dignity in this town) and doesn't scorn smokers, even if they're confined to the bar side of the building. And the attractive servers, in their neatly starched white shirts, have exquisite manners.
On my first visit, I brought along a trio of unabashed dining snobs: Bob, Jim and Karen. Jim had never been to Zona Rosa and was impressed by the "attractive, small-town quality" of the shopping center, with its winding streets and fountains. "With this here," he said as he unfurled a white linen napkin over his lap, "why would Northlanders ever travel south to eat anymore?"
That was precisely what Anderson was thinking when he committed to opening the new restaurant. "There are lots of housing developments and hotels on the other side of the river," he tells me. "And people didn't want to drive downtown to eat."