Some city slickers discover there's plenty of reason to mosey out south to Wil Jenny's.

Southern Comfort 

Some city slickers discover there's plenty of reason to mosey out south to Wil Jenny's.

Over the past two decades, I've watched as Johnson County's "restaurant row" migrated from 95th Street to College Boulevard and then southward to 119th Street. Not even 10 years ago, 119th Street was a big deal, boasting the high-toned 40 Sardines and the no-frills Piccadilly Cafeteria and just about every dining option in between.

Now 135th Street is the new 119th Street. A new crop of restaurants has sprouted along that thoroughfare to keep residents of those cookie-cutter housing developments dining practically in their own backyards as Johnson County keeps pushing its way south.

Apparently, there's a whole generation of suburban homeowners out there who wouldn't dream of driving north of 75th Street for a meal. Recently, I met a young woman from Olathe who had never been to the Country Club Plaza — and expressed no interest in ever going there. And she'd never heard of Zona Rosa up north. "Is that right outside of St. Joseph?" she asked me.

The flip side of that story could be about my friend Ned, who lives in midtown and flatly refuses to drive south of 95th Street because, he says, he gets migraines looking at the pretentiously grand entrances to developments with names like Patrician Woods.

Ned usually balks at dining in the Kansas suburbs, but after I took him to a new restaurant called Wil Jenny's, he confessed to liking it so much that he actually tried to go back a few days later. Not alone, of course, but accompanied by a Johnson County friend — "the one who tore down an ugly 1960s Leawood ranch and built a divine mansion," is how he describes her. They got hopelessly lost.

"I couldn't remember if it was on 131st Street or 145th Street," Ned told me. (The restaurant is on neither street.) "And calling directory assistance didn't help because I kept calling the place Will Penny's."

Will Penny is the name of a 1968 movie about an aging cowboy. Wil Jenny's, on the other hand, is the name that Kevin Timmons and Doug Watkins — founders of the two successful Nick & Jake's Bar and Grills — have given their four-month-old dining concept (which is, conveniently, right across the parking lot from the first Nick & Jake's).

There's some cutesy fake legend about the restaurant's namesake (a poor Texas boy who became an oil mogul, blah, blah, blah) that's as silly as the menu's "Texas Caviar" — a four-bean salad in a slightly sweet vinaigrette. (The restaurant's moniker combines the first names of Timmons' daughter and Watkins' son.) But even if no actual Texas wildcat inspired Wil Jenny's, it's the kind of joint that a Hollywood cowpoke like Will Penny — played by the solidly Republican Charlton Heston — would find perfectly comfortable. It's more luxury than Lubbock. The expensively mounted dining room just borders on hoity-toity, even though the menu is strictly roadhouse fare: traditional Tex-Mex dishes (fajitas, chile rellenos, tacos) with home-style Lone Star favorites such as smoked beef brisket, chicken fried steak, prime rib and green-bean casserole.

Bob and Ned loved the place instantly. Ned was impressed by the costly fabric used to upholster the cozy banquettes; Bob admired the soaring ceiling and the stone fireplace mantel surrounding a crackling gas-flame fire. "Why don't they open places like this in the middle of the city?" Ned asked. "Don't they think city dwellers would dine at a restaurant like this if it were located on 13th Street instead of 135th Street?"

I reminded him that the last time a cowboy-inspired, Southwestern-style restaurant opened in the heart of Kansas City, it was the ill-fated Canyon Café on the Plaza. "But that place had awful food," Bob said. "The food at Wil Jenny's is really good."

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