The second time I visited O'Neill's, I arrived late, after 8:30 p.m. Every table was occupied, and a dozen people were still waiting. "It'll be thirty minutes," said the rosy-cheeked young lady at the hostess station. "May I add your name to the list?" My stomach was rumbling, so I shook my head and ambled back out to my car. I'd rather starve than wait.
A few days later, I saw a friend of mine, who I knew to be a fan of the two-year-old restaurant. "What's the story with O'Neill's?" I asked. "It's busier than the Cheesecake Factory. The food can't be that good, can it?"
"The food's OK," he said with a shrug. "The secret is the location. Where else can you get something that tastes like a home-cooked meal in Prairie Village?"
Good answer. The suburban hamlet isn't exactly a restaurant mecca, although the sophisticated Tatsu's, Café Provence and Mosaic Bistro keep it from being a total culinary wasteland. Johnson County was once an especially bleak place for restaurants, thanks to stringent liquor-by-the-drink laws that didn't change until the mid-'80s. Over the last decade it has seen the dining equivalent of a California gold rush, with practically every bar-and-grill chain setting up an outpost in the formerly boozephobic county. But independently owned spots like O'Neill's -- serving old-fashioned Mom-style dishes such as pot roast, steak sandwiches and baked-potato soup -- aren't in great supply on the Kansas side.
And a subtle snobbery has always lingered in Prairie Village, despite its poky name. The same well-bred art collector who bragged about how a New York customs official looked at the address on her passport and asked if she "lived in a tepee" is the same person who once confessed she was thrilled when the Po' Folks restaurant on 95th Street closed after a short life serving country fare. Prairie Villagers don't mind being considered "a little bit country" until it comes to their food; then they start putting on airs.
But not at the easygoing O'Neill's, where pretensions are as hard to find as a quick seat at a four-top. From a 1960s brick shopping strip, owner Brian O'Neill Schorgl has created the kind of neighborhood restaurant that isn't easy to find anymore. I'm not talking Applebee's, but the real thing (think Romanelli Grill, Governor Stumpy's, the original Peanut), where friends gather for sandwiches and beer at one table while at another, young parents fuss over a trio of toddlers and can order off the kids' menu for less than three bucks.
I had a couple of fussy kids -- and one even fussier adult -- with me on the night I finally snagged a table without a wait (a fluke, as it turned out) and poured myself into a wooden chair to peruse a menu melding Mexican, Italian, Creole and Midwestern American foods. Irish too, if you count this restaurant's popular Irish pot roast, which bears a remarkable resemblance to the better-known combination of braised beef and vegetables known as Yankee pot roast. At O'Neill's, it's a giant bowl of tender beef heaped over a mound of mashed potatoes, surrounded by carrots and onions and drizzled with a potent Cabernet reduction.
I could barely finish it, because on that visit I had already overindulged in a bruschetta appetizer with chunks of balsamic-marinated tomatoes and fresh basil spooned over slices of soft bread covered with herbed cream cheese. That layer of Philadelphia cheese made it more a Kansas tomato sandwich than an Italian bruschetta, but at O'Neill's, no dish is quite faithful to its ethnic origins -- from the "Alfredo" pasta made with red peppers and tomatoes to the "Oriental" salad with canned Mandarin oranges.
Similarly geared for conservative tastes, a tomato-based tortilla soup is only lightly seasoned -- but it's thick with carrots, celery, onions, a few fried tortilla straws and a splash of shredded cheese, so it's plenty comforting on a cold day. Who cares if its heritage is closer to Yankee tomato soup than anything served south of Tijuana? And the baked-potato soup, an enthralling concoction of cream, diced potatoes and onion dressed up with cheese, bacon bits and chopped scallions, was practically a full meal. After finishing her entire bowl, my friend Jeanne was almost too stuffed to try plowing through a steak sandwich that promised "filet medallion" but arrived as a hoagie roll crammed with lukewarm bits of chopped tenderloin.
The kids' menu provides chicken fingers, grilled cheese and hot dogs, but one of the picky prepubescents I brought along sniffed at the spaghetti because its red sauce didn't look like a puddle of hot ketchup. The very idea of the chunk of tomato actually floating in the sauce offended her preteen sensibilities.
On my next visit, I survived a twenty-minute wait by chatting with the other hungry hostages in the holding area. All of us were shifting uncomfortably and casting hopeful glances at the energetic young serving staff, who were almost all blue-eyed, clear-skinned and built like linebackers, as they cleared off tables.
This was the visit when my friend Bob and I shared a plate of wagon-wheel-sized deep-fried stuffed mushrooms, crunchy under a golden breading of "Japanese" breadcrumbs. When I asked a manager if the breadcrumbs were made from Japanese bread, she said, "They come out of a bag, and the bag says 'Japanese breadcrumbs.'" Japanese or not, they were bursting with more of that good ol' herbed cream cheese, which can be just as effective in a quasi-Japanese dish as in a fake-Italian one!
On that chilly night, the server talked me into a salmon burger, which tasted just like a veggie burger only fishier. Bob had a half order of baby back ribs covered in a sweet, vinegary barbecue sauce, which he proclaimed was "almost as good as Gates', but not as meaty."
After such hearty dinners it seemed piggish to order dessert, but we did anyway, forsaking apple pie and bread pudding for the two dishes actually made in the restaurant's kitchen: a towering slab of Candy Bar Pie (vanilla ice cream mixed with chopped-up Snickers bars in a chocolate cookie crust) and a pucker-inducing wedge of Key lime pie in a graham cracker crust, served under a fluffy pile of whipped cream.
Despite the frenetic pace of O'Neill's dinner rush, there was a sense of organization, and the hard-working waiters and waitresses never appeared harried. Their good-natured attention, the generous portions of well-prepared and uncomplicated fare and the menu's prices are reasons enough to stick around and wait for a table. Some meals really are worth it.