It was a full-frontal assault on this town's famous steak joints, such as the Savoy Grill, the Golden Ox and Plaza III, but the magazine writer who had endowed with his highest praise an unpretentious place way out in Martin City was Calvin Trillin, who grew up in Kansas City. True, Jess & Jim's had been around longer than the Golden Ox and Plaza III, but it didn't have much name recognition outside the metro. Playboy changed all that, boosting business at the small-town steakhouse until then-owners Jim Wright and R.C. Van Noy were forced to double the size of the dining area.
The 67-year-old restaurant has had a long run on those sexy Playboy laurels, but now there are probably four times as many steakhouses in the metro as there were back then -- including the Capital Grille, Morton's, Ruth's Chris and a handful of Hereford House locations. There'd be some serious eye-rolling today if anyone, Trillin included, called Jess & Jim's the finest in the world. I wouldn't even call it the finest in Kansas City. However, after a couple of interesting meals at the place, I understand why it continues to have its unwavering fans.
Jess & Jim's has a refreshingly unfussy, uncomplicated comfort level that's very attractive to diners who just want a no-frills steak dinner without formal service, a hefty price tag or well-appointed surroundings. It's so utterly laid-back, in fact, that no one gives a damn here if you walk in wearing a Nine Inch Nails T-shirt and paint-splattered jeans -- or a Chanel suit.
Many of the servers, such as Betty Reed and Bernadine Slinkerd, have been rolling service carts through the dining room for more than 30 years, and there's something comforting about that, too. And unlike those uptight, fancy-schmancy steak parlors that charge extra for everything, the dinners at Jess & Jim's are still a package deal, including a salad or a bowl of soup, a potato, rice or green beans, and a basket of garlic-brushed Texas toast.
Because I accept this restaurant's distinctive style at face value, it's hard for me to bitch about petty details. Some things that annoyed my dining companions -- the plastic salad plates (the salad was a bore anyway), the dated décor, the satellite music system that blasted the weirdest compilation of music I'd ever heard at one sitting -- didn't bother me.
"This restaurant has lost its lovin' feeling," my friend Bob said, pushing away an overdressed salad just as the Righteous Brothers started singing that song. A few minutes earlier it had been Gwen Stefani and, after that, 1980s icon Rick Astley -- at a volume so intense that he seemed to be standing right behind my chair. I would have preferred Roy Rogers.
But the unique soundtrack did cause some unintentional laughter, like when I bit into a deep-fried jalapeño "popper" (from an assortment of fried faves heaped on an appetizer sampler plate). At the same time, "Turn The Beat Around" inspired Bob, Carol and Yvette to reminisce about those pungent, nonedible poppers from back in the disco era. I prefer the kind filled with gooey cream cheese, and these were a highlight of the sampler platter's crispy fried cheese sticks, onion rings and chicken wings.
The beat hasn't really turned around at Jess & Jim's, which may be part of its appeal. Tell me what modern steakhouse sets out baskets of cellophane-wrapped crackers with butter or, my personal favorite, stainless-steel bowls filled with dark-purple, clove-scented pickled beets? I loved the beets, loved the crackers, went crazy for the sound of steaks sizzling on hot metal platters coming out of the kitchen. It brought back all kinds of memories from my childhood (back when I should have stopped eating butter on saltines).
Not everything is retro, alas. In 1972, Trillin wrote about a $6.50 sirloin. It costs about $21.95 now. And the 25-ounce Playboy strip is a beefy $38.95. But there are some real deals on the menu, such as a tender and juicy 12-ounce prime-rib dinner that proved just the right antidote to a cold, rainy night, especially sided with a shockingly big twice-baked potato scandalously loaded with crumbled bacon and cheese.
Bob barely made a dent in one of the three oversized, deep-fried chicken breasts he ordered that night. The bird wasn't bad, but I suggest sticking with the hand-cut, certified Angus steaks. I was saddened by my second dinner at Jess & Jim's, a soggy mess called "broiled shrimp scampi." Broiled? Drowned was more like it, served lukewarm in a pond of garlic-flavored oil and smothered in sodden bread crumbs. I ate two of the shrimp and pushed the rest away. Meanwhile, Carol's broiled red salmon actually tasted like it had been under the broiler too long -- it was dry.
Bob and Yvette were thrilled with their choices that second night, though. Bob's 10-ounce strip was perfectly grilled, as was Yvette's bacon-wrapped 5-ounce filet. I was glad I had gotten my own beef fix earlier, with a soothing bowl of the signature steak soup. Vastly preferable to the house salad, the fragrant dark broth was laden with chunks of beef, potatoes, carrots and peas. At Jess & Jim's, the phrase steak and potato should be a mantra. Or a command.
We were sitting under a framed photograph of Jim Wright, one of the joint's namesakes. (With a cigarette clenched between his teeth, he looked a lot like a young Ben Affleck.) Wright outlasted his original partner, Jess Kinkaid, and passed the restaurant on to his cousin, Raymond Van Noy, in the 1970s. Van Noy's sons, Mike and David, run the place today, though it hasn't changed its menu in decades (except that the spaghetti and meatballs is now only on the senior citizens' menu).
Despite ignoring my shrimp scampi, I had effectively gorged myself on a twice-baked potato, Texas toast, soup and buttered crackers, and half of Carol's addictive, thinly sliced cottage fries. So by the end of the meal, I happily passed on dessert. But Yvette and Bob shared a tiny wedge of a chocolate-drenched layered pastry called white champagne cake, which they proclaimed to be absolutely wonderful. "This really could be the finest dessert in the world," Bob said enthusiastically.
Hyperbole, unlike the $6.50 sirloin, survives into the 21st century.