It was a publicity stunt; the faux hippies were not actually protesting anything (the signs were advertisements like "The Prices, They Are a-Changin'"), except maybe good taste. Still, it was a slow news day, and sure enough, TV cameras showed up to capture the end of an era: Houlihan's, which had helped establish the Plaza as a sexy, swinging dining location in the 1970s, was now the dowdiest doll in the bunch.
The times, they were a-changing, all right. Like many Vietnam War-era hippie chicks who morphed into politically conservative middle-aged matrons, Houlihan's was packing up and moving to the suburbs for good.
I didn't shed any tears over the move, despite my own bittersweet memories of Houlihan's in those early, free-spirited years. Hard to believe now, but in its day, Houlihan's was as seductive and lively as Re:Verse and the Kona Grill are today. The restaurant's founders, Joe Gilbert and Paul Robinson, brazenly melded sex and dining into a "concept" back when the Sexual Revolution was in full swing. Houlihan's was Kansas City's answer to youth-focused restaurant bars across the country, particularly Maxwell's Plum in New York City (the first to decorate with kitschy memorabilia and antiques) and the fast-growing T.G.I. Friday's chain. If Houlihan's didn't imitate those restaurants, it was certainly inspired by them.
The tone of the early Houlihan's was irreverent, from the cleverly written menus to the sassy waitresses, actually called the "Houlihan Girls" in those politically incorrect days. But along the way, what had once been fun and irreverent became stodgy and irrelevant. Before the 48-restaurant chain filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization last year, even the legendary Plaza location had lost all traces of its once hip, eccentric style. It had become so frumpy and boring that even its most devoted following -- the baby boomers who had come of age drinking Cheap Sunglasses cocktails at the Houlihan's bar -- had switched loyalties to the Cheesecake Factory or Grand Street Café.
When Houlihan's announced it was moving the Plaza restaurant staff and a few vintage mementos (including the old Tom Houlihan's haberdashery sign) to the former Fairway Grill location -- in the snooty Fairway Shops, on the border between two high-dollar Johnson County neighborhoods -- I was skeptical. My last few ventures into the suburban satellites had been disappointing experiences, to say the least.
But I have to give Lozoff and the current team of Houlihan's executives a pat on the back, because they're at least making a bold effort to polish up a long-tarnished image. This newest Houlihan's has a distinctive and attractive décor, the trimmed-down menu is mostly right on the mark, and the youthful staff has at least a healthy glimmer on the art of customer service.
If the expensively appointed Fairway Grill evoked a 1940s roadhouse (right down to the shiny grand piano in the corner), the new Houlihan's sports a vaguely European bistro look. The piano is gone (and so is the revolving chicken rotisserie and its heavenly perfume, alas), the dark woodwork has been painted in shades of yellow and cream, and three new Tiffany-style lamps, almost Goliath in dimension, float over the granite-topped bar. The walls boast mirrors and French poster prints, the tables are uncloaked and the svelte servers are clad in black from head to toe.