It would be fair to say that no one will ever mistake the more famous Stonewall Inn (which is on the National Register of Historic Places) for the Stonewall Inn in Kansas, which has its own place in local suburban history as one of the oldest restaurants in Johnson County. The two white buildings that make up the little complex -- a pizza shop, a coffeehouse and the 27-year-old restaurant -- at the western end of 103rd Street (which conveniently dead-ends practically in the Stonewall Inn's parking lot) are part of the old Jorgensen farm.
The Kieltyka family turned the larger of the two buildings into a restaurant in 1978, serving sandwiches and traditional Polish dishes, including kielbasa sausage, sauerkraut and pierogi. More recently, Brandon Harding took over the venue but kept the kielbasa and sauerkraut on the menu, along with the fried chicken. I didn't know the place had a reputation for the latter until a friend told me she had eaten "the most expensive fried chicken dinner in town" at the Stonewall.
I suspected she was exaggerating, so I hauled out my friends Bob (who loves fried chicken) and Patrick to investigate the claim. It had been decades since I had eaten in the place, which I vaguely remembered as being dark and smoky. I can now report that it hasn't changed a bit, though the nonsmoking dining area is brightly lighted (thanks to antique fixtures hanging from an institutional-style drop ceiling), and there's an attractive outdoor patio if you prefer nibbling on potato skins or deep-fried pickles al fresco.
I do not, so we were ushered to one of the mismatched tables in the cozy nonsmoking room, with its teal indoor-outdoor carpeting and cute yellow café curtains woven with a little rooster motif. It's all very unpretentious and beyond relaxed. The servers, for example, wear T-shirts and jeans and display a laissez-faire attitude that my fellow diners found annoying. Instead of being refilled from a pitcher, a half-empty iced-tea glass gets whisked away, never to be seen again.
OK, I explained to my friends as we dipped fried pickle slices into a cup of ranch dressing, this isn't the American Restaurant. At first glance, the Stonewall Inn is a lovable sort of dumpy neighborhood joint. But as the meal progressed in a rocky fashion, I started to see the Stonewall Inn as a more flawed version of truly classic local roadhouses such as Harold's or the Bamboo Hut.
A fan of the Stonewall Inn had even called to tell me that if I liked the rough-and-tumble ambience and no-frills cuisine at the Bamboo Hut ("Hut and Heavy," February 24), I'd love the Stonewall. She thought wrong, though the Stonewall Inn scores higher points for its appetizer selection -- including thick chicken-stuffed quesadillas, a creamy spinach-and-artichoke dip and crunchy fried chicken livers that were all very good, even if they cost nearly as much as the dinners and the cream gravy that came with the livers was completely tasteless.
Our success with the livers emboldened Bob to ask our server about the fried chicken. "Is it as good as Stroud's?" he inquired hopefully.
"I think it's right up there," she answered with bravado.
Our server's unwavering confidence was a positive sign, so we were flush with anticipation. But the chicken was visually a disaster and tasted worse. The three big breasts set in front of Bob had been fried to a fare-thee-well in cooking oil that clearly should have been changed an hour earlier. The crust wasn't golden but rather a dull, dark brown, and it tasted positively gristly. He was furious. "You get better chicken at Popeye's," he said. Cheaper, too.
Patrick, who never reads the fine print on anything -- including menus -- had ordered the rainbow trout, which he simply assumed would arrive filleted and broiled. But the menu clearly explains that the fish is "served whole, poached in white wine and lemons." Patrick blanched when the little puffy, bluish trout arrived, a whitened eyeball staring up at him. "Are you sure this is rainbow trout?" he whispered across the table. "It looks like a bluegill." At least it tasted like trout.
My gummy mound of spaghetti and meatballs was a different story. If our server hadn't assured me that it was made to order, I would have sworn it was canned. In any case, I couldn't eat it. We quickly paid the check and left.
I dreaded making a second visit to the place, but a few nights later, I returned with my friend Jeanne and her two teenage daughters. "What kind of food does this place serve, anyway?" asked 12-year-old Alexandra on the drive to the restaurant.
"American," I said, brightly. "You know -- steaks, meatloaf, liver and onions."
Alexandra wrinkled her nose, "That's not American," she sniffed. "It's geriatric food."
It was a nasty but prescient comment. When we were escorted into the dining room, I realized that the Stonewall's dinner clientele skews to the Lawrence Welk generation. That makes sense, because the prices here are startlingly cheap: an 8-ounce filet mignon dinner served with vegetables, potato and a choice of soup or salad costs $11. I had to look at the menu twice to believe it.
This could have been a defining moment for my opinion of the place, because the inexpensive filet was first-rate. Jeanne ordered it, and we both agreed that it was tender (though overcooked, which seems to be the procedure in this joint's kitchen) and served with a perfectly decent baked potato. But the steak was that night's single high point. I knew there was trouble ahead when everyone pushed away their salads because they were bland and forgettable -- except for the croutons, which were so stale that I nearly cracked a tooth. Those I'll never forget.
I had scant hopes for what my $7 apple-smoked pork-chop dinner would be like, so I wasn't too disappointed by the grilled meat, which was barely thicker than a sheet of cardboard. Next to that was a pile of green beans that tasted as though they'd been prepared the way my mother made them: Open a can and heat them up.
I snagged a handful of french fries from Alexandra's plate, along with one of her deep-fried shrimp, which were encased in a thick armor of fried batter. "The batter is as thick as the shrimp," she griped. And the fries had been in the fryer too long. "They're not crisp," she said, "they're crunchy." Her sister, Roxanne, was in hog heaven, however, announcing that her meatball sandwich, blanketed with a bubbly layer of molten mozzarella, was "perfect in every way."
Jeanne was amused by the Stonewall's helter-skelter culinary style. "Don't they know that eye appeal is a big part of the meal?" she said, noting that the dinners seemed to have been tossed on the plates. But the visuals -- or lack of them -- are all part of the Stonewall Inn's peculiar identity, which is both lackadaisical and lackluster.
The girls ordered slices of cheesecake for dessert, which arrived artfully drizzled with chocolate sauce. And the bowl of steaming cherry cobbler, tucked under a cap of doughy pastry, was surprisingly tasty. It was a showy finale to a lifeless meal.
The Stonewall Inn does have its fans, though. On both of my visits, the outdoor patio was filled with cheery patrons (mostly younger than the folks eating indoors) having a lively old time. And the other diners in the nonsmoking room seemed happy to be eating there, which said volumes about the tastes of Lenexans ... or about my own.