I was eager to see if the same sort of meat market was going on inside the Elephant Bar Restaurant, the company's five-month-old local outpost -- though I suspected Overland Park might be an unlikely setting for it. So I phoned ahead to find out the best time to arrive for both eating and gawking. When, to paraphrase Pink, was the party getting started?
A perky young woman told me that the Elephant Bar didn't take reservations and said that if I wanted to avoid an annoying wait, my group should arrive no later than 6 p.m. "Because after that, we get into our rush period here, like, really busy," she said with authority. "There could be a 20-minute wait."
Because I had planned to take friends who detest restaurants that don't offer reservations but prefer instead to make patrons sit around waiting for a table (I'm not fond of the practice myself), I had to coordinate everyone to arrive as close to 6 p.m. as possible. Fortunately, we were seated at a decent table right away.
But as our quartet of voyeurs eagerly looked around, we realized that we had been deceived. Perhaps in Southern California, the land of tanned and lithe young bodies, a contrived venue like the Elephant Bar -- with its coyly titled cocktails and faux-exotic décor -- might be an "obnoxious, party place." In Overland Park, the scene was strictly squaresville: chubby, balding men in polyester slacks accompanied by their dour spouses; flabby foursomes in jeans and pullovers; and tired-looking young couples already saddled with two or three wriggling kids. Hot and steamy it was not.
"I heard this was kind of a singles scene," I asked our snappy server, Heather, who looked at me as if I were insane. "This is the suburbs," she said. "We're kind of family-oriented out here."
From the sound system, Britney Spears' "Toxic" echoed over all the hard surfaces -- uncloaked tables, amber-colored light fixtures, bamboo paneling, the shiny walls of the exhibition kitchen. But most of the patrons wouldn't have known Britney Spears from Dusty Springfield, which could be one reason the menu hyped a promotion for the restaurant's "Senior Explorers Discount Card." That's right: If you're over 60, there's a discount for you -- just not on liquor. Sorry, Grandma!
"It's the Rainforest Café for boring adults," said my friend Bob, who had to comfort himself with a Ciroc Martini when he realized that this plebian Elephant Bar had nothing in common with the really famous one, the elegant lounge in the swanky Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor in Cambodia, playground of celebrities like Jackie Onassis and novelist Somerset Maugham.
That's not to say Overland Park's Elephant Bar doesn't have a playground quality. It does. Unfortunately, it's more Disneyland than any exotic locale. But sex and décor aren't the selling points here anyway. As the company's Web site brags, the pachyderm in the restaurant's name refers as much to the amount of food it serves as to mysterious, far-off lands: "We'll take you on a taste safari through exotic destinations to find 'elephant-size' portions of fresh culinary delights."
The portions are large, though not specifically elephant-sized. As for it being a "taste safari," the restaurant doesn't come close to delivering on that big promise. The menu is a cross-cultural conglomeration -- Mexican fajitas, Santa Barbara burgers, Hawaiian Chicken Luau -- with a vaguely Pan-Asian motif. It speaks volumes that, like Denny's, the Elephant Bar boasts a menu full of color photographs of many of the dishes. There's nothing wrong with the color-catalog technique of presenting food, as long as the dishes on the page actually resemble the stuff that comes out of the kitchen. At the Elephant Bar, that's a tall order.