Pat Murray, the owner of Murray's Tables & Tap, says at least eight previous restaurant concepts have come and gone in the location where he opened his namesake restaurant and saloon two months ago. I can remember a couple of barbecue joints and a Mexican restaurant with delusions of grandeur in this spot on State Line Road, but everything else is a blur. South Kansas City — with the notable exception of Martin City — has never been known as a culinary Shangri-La.
But Murray, who previously operated Pat's Blue Rib'n BarBeQue in Manhattan, Kansas, and Lawrence, Kansas (as well as the old Lynn Dickey's sports bar in Westport), thought the space was perfect for what he wanted to create: one part laid-back lounge and one part comfortable, somewhat sophisticated dining room. The demographic that he wants is already living in this neighborhood. Its residents belong to at least one country club, they like a nice cocktail before dinner, and they won't skip a rich dessert afterward. So the dining room here attracts a somewhat older crowd than you'll see dining on the Plaza or in the Crossroads, but the KC versions of Red and Kitty Forman (the parents on That '70s Show) need a place to eat sliders with Lyonnaise potatoes. Now they have it.
To make things even more retro, many of the servers at Murray's are old-school veterans. I've seen, for instance, Sharon and Roni, both sexy young waitresses two decades ago, both still attractive and total pros. They'll not only suggest your best bets on the menu but they'll also tell you to sit up straight, put your napkin in your lap and not talk with your mouth full.
Murray's is such a time warp that you can't dislike the place even if you think you should. Of course, it would be nice if the prices were also out of some previous era. The featured crab-cake starter is a neat little puck of moist, delicately seasoned lump crabmeat, but at $12 a cake, it turns out to be, like, $4 a bite. The plump seared scallops, wrapped in a sheath of crispy, pecan-smoked bacon and served with a black-pepper-apricot chutney, are a better deal and a lot easier to share.
Murray's doesn't have a dumbed-down menu, but it's aggressively unpretentious. A plate of fresh mozzarella, sliced tomatoes and fresh basil isn't called a Caprese salad here. It has some tissue-thin pink prosciutto tossed on the plate and is labeled simply "mozzarella and tomato plate." It is what it is, but that name sounds like something you'd order off the menu from your room at St. Luke's Hospital. Maybe that's a selling point here, where, on one visit, I was among the youngest diners in the place. I considered asking for the children's menu.
Before I could do that, my dining companions arrived and lowered the room's median age by a couple of decades. They wanted the beer list, not the kids' menu, and when they saw the prices, they almost left. "A Bud Light draft for $4.50 ... in Missouri? That's outrageous," one of them said. For $20 more, they could have ordered a whole slab of ribs. (During the happy hour at Murray's, from 3 to 6 p.m., a Bud Light costs a dollar less.) There are seven other beers on draft, most of which are worth the slightly high-for-KC cost: three Boulevard beers, Stella Artois, Guinness, Harp and Blue Moon. (At press time, Murray was playing with his draft prices and had lowered Bud Light to $3.50.)
Besides, our booth was comfortable, in a dining room painted a soothing sage green, and our server (Sharon) was as friendly and accommodating as a long-lost relative.
After a couple of sips of beer, my younger companions stopped fussing about the beer prices and were focused on the menu. We agreed that the sign of any good neighborhood steakhouse — Murray's offers five cuts of beef — is a generous array of home-style side dishes. Sharon didn't rattle off the choices, diner-style, but the list wasn't skimpy: baked potatoes, mashed potatoes, steak fries, sweet-potato fries, potato salad, Lyonnaise potatoes (the fancy name for spuds fried with onion; the version here isn't any grander than the hash browns at Town Topic). Oh, and macaroni and cheese, baked beans and beer-battered onion rings.
The starches are pretty much the only vegetarian-friendly options at Murray's Tables & Tap (where the macaroni and cheese is prepared without chicken broth). Among the vegetables are steamed broccoli, grilled asparagus, and sautéed spinach with mushrooms, all of which are serviceable.
Meat eaters have much more to choose from, including tender smoked ribs and a first-rate smoked-meat platter that arrays excellent brisket, pit ham, smoked turkey, succulent pulled pork and house-brined corned beef. The herbed pork loin is also delectable.
That good pork loin may change in the next few months, though. Pat Murray has hired former McCormick & Schmick's chef Eric Johnson to take over the kitchen, and he plans to tweak the menu for fall. Johnson's first project should be to simplify this restaurant's complicated (and labor-intensive) "Build Your Own Burger" options. Like many of Murray's patrons, I don't want to have to make that many creative choices. Just bring me a good cheeseburger.
Our server warned us that the cayenne seafood pasta, tossed in a goat's-milk Alfredo seasoned with that pepper, was "very spicy." By Applebee's standards, maybe, but too discreet by mine. And even though I almost never order farm-raised salmon from a menu anymore (it's often as tasteless as lard), chef Johnson does a good job with a grilled fillet here, marinating it in olive oil and garlic, expertly grilling the pale-pink slab and smothering it with a supple beurre blanc. I'd order it again.
The dessert selection seems to vary erratically, but the crème brûlée is made in-house, as is a surprisingly robust lemon-goat's-milk pudding that's comfortingly thick but refreshingly tart.
Murray's Tables & Tap is also one of the last places left in the metro where customers wanting to sample the pleasures of dining in the 1960s and '70s can step outside to the covered patio after dinner, order a stinger or a grasshopper or even a daiquiri, and light up a Marlboro or Virginia Slims. Yes, it's totally politically incorrect by today's standards — even a little vulgar — but back then, we called it sophistication.