Hollywood started using honky-tonk roadhouses as dramatic settings as early as 1926 and, over the decades, set the tone for what a classic American roadhouse is supposed to look like: rustic, lighted by neon beer signs, thick with cigarette smoke, loud with jazz music, and packed with easy women and sweaty young drunks itching for fistfights. Not exactly a place for clean-cut families, you know?
But that's not the way Logan's Roadhouse envisions the 21st-century version of the iconic joint. Oh, sure, neon beer signs hang on the walls, and there's a rustic, barnlike sensibility to the décor, but everything else in this Tennessee-based chain restaurant is as squeaky-clean as a Disney movie. And I'm not saying that's such a bad thing. In the case of the two-month-old Logan's Roadhouse in Independence, the décor may evoke those hard-boozin' backwoods bars of another era, but it's smoke-free, deliriously upbeat and seriously family friendly. On all three of my visits, the place was loaded with nice-looking young couples dripping with toddlers and babies.
"And older ladies who wear yellow Crocs and matching polyester blouses," said my friend Franklin, who told me that he felt like he was walking into an airplane hangar the first time I dragged him to this Logan's, which is the first in the Kansas City area. (The company recently opened operations in Joplin and Cape Girardeau, too.) "It's so big," he said. "And so noisy."
We were escorted to a table with uncushioned blond-wood benches and given a paper towel wrapped around a knife, fork and spoon. In the middle of the table was a tin bucket brimming with peanuts in the shell.
"That's our signature," the dimpled hostess explained as she handed us cardboard menus die-cut in the shape of a bucket of peanuts. It was a bottomless bucket of nuts, she said. "Eat as many as you like!"
That's what the chipmunk-cheeked young man in the opposite booth was doing — not peanuts, though. He was stuffing plump deep-fried Rockin' Onion Petals into his mouth while listening to his girlfriend's detailed rant about one of her co-workers. Alas, I only caught a few snippets of her monologue, but when I overheard her say, "You wouldn't believe what we found in her desk drawer on Tuesday ... " I nearly got up and sat down right next to ol' chipmunk cheeks.
Luckily, I came to my senses when our pretty, ponytailed waitress brought out a cup of baked-potato soup for me and the "Award Winning Chili" for Franklin. "So what award did this chili recipe win?" I asked the server. She shrugged, giggled and left, returning with a plastic basket lined with waxed paper and heaped with softball-sized freshly baked yeast rolls. The rolls — "They're made from scratch," she announced proudly — deserve some kind of award, even if the chili isn't all that spec-tacular. Franklin liked it enough because it was meatier than most. The baked-potato soup also didn't win any awards in my book, though it was wonderfully hot, unlike most soups I've eaten in restaurants lately.
What does deserve an award is this restaurant's version of the White Castle slider. A basket of "Roadies" contains three mini burgers (not nearly as petite as White Castle's) topped with cheddar and sweet pickles and tucked into those lovely dinner rolls. Those doughy rolls take these burgers out of the mini category and into a full-meal deal.
A few nights later, I joined my friends Bob and Jake for steaks. I was a little wary of ordering beef here — the steaks are surprisingly inexpensive, and the prices include two side dishes. Throwing caution to the wind, I went for the 9-ounce filet mignon sided with a downright decent Caesar salad (not very garlicky but served in a chilled bowl) and a dish of saucy macaroni and cheese. To my amazement, the filet was perfectly cooked, juicy and tender.
Jake wasn't so thrilled with his signature Logan steak, a nice-looking sirloin cooked "brewski style" on a bed of beer-braised onions. "It has a lot of flavor," he said, "but the meat's a little tough."
Steak-loving Bob gave thumbs up to his sirloin-and-shrimp combo, a tender 6-ounce steakette under a mound of deep-fried shrimp in salt-and-pepper breading. "For a cheap steak, it's terrific," he said." He also chose a Caesar salad as a side dish (the menu lists more than a dozen side options, including baked spuds and grilled vegetables) along with those fried onion petals with a remoulade-style sauce. "Just like the Outback Steakhouse, but better," he said.
At 5:30 p.m., the dining room was already packed. Clearly the corporate office had chosen wisely when it put this roadhouse in the eastern suburbs. By the time we left (hauling at least three carry-out boxes with our leftovers), a crowd was waiting to get in.
It was pretty much the same story when I returned for lunch with my twentysomething colleague Nadia, who said the restaurant was a great place to take kids but not necessarily her scene. That didn't matter when the fried mushrooms came around, sizzling hot and with just a hint of breading instead of the usual thick armor of fried batter. She also liked her lunch, a slab of grilled meatloaf smothered in onions and gravy. "It's the kind of food my grandmother might make," she mused, "if my grandmother cooked like this."
Mine didn't cook country-style, either, but I'm sure she would have loved the mess o' fried Carolina shrimp I dipped in a cocktail sauce that desperately needed horseradish. It was a mighty heavy lunch, but the music was too loud for me to pay attention to that warning inside my head. I ate lustily, keeping an eye on the crowd just in case I happened to spot any easy women or sweaty young drunks itching for a fistfight.