It sounds crazy, but I know people — reasonable people — who won't go back to the five-year-old Stroud's in Fairway because, well, it's not the old Stroud's on 85th Street. The fried chicken tastes the same as it did in the original location, but I've had people scream at me that it doesn't. Kansas Citians can be like that about their beloved dining spots.
In 1980, Stan Glazer bought the iconic Wishbone Restaurant on Main Street and tinkered until the regulars stopped coming. Then he turned it into a nightclub. That failed, too.
Modern Houlihan's restaurants bear no resemblance to the quirky place that Joe Gilbert and Paul Robinson opened in an old Plaza haberdashery in the 1970s. That's probably a good thing because a dozen corporate chains imitated the idea. For nearly two decades, I've heard people say they wished someone would open a restaurant like the Prospect of Westport, which was, to 1980s hipsters, what chef Michael Smith's Extra Virgin is now (but with a very different menu). Every great restaurant has its day until, without warning, it becomes the culinary equivalent of Simon Le Bon or Huey Lewis. Simon who? The Prospect of what?
That brings me to the Corner Restaurant, a Westport institution for three decades, even if it had aged so badly by the time the doors locked for good in 2010 that the place looked like it had last been cleaned when the cast from Saved By the Bell was actually still in high school.
The space sat empty for three years when the unthinkable happened. Two young restaurateurs — Dawn Slaughter and Michael Pfeifer — revived the concept that Corner founder, the late Steve Friedman, had introduced in 1980: a laid-back, sexy diner serving inexpensive home-style dishes with decent lighting, good music and attractive servers. It was also very gay-friendly, which was something of a novelty in the Reagan years, and welcoming of the most eccentric clientele, from drag queens to religious fanatics.
In the Corner's heyday, customers happily stood outside for as long as an hour to get a table during the breakfast shift. In its last days, the staff would have been lucky to lure anyone into the dining room. When a restaurant has a long history filled with dramatic highs and lows, it becomes almost legendary. And legends (unless you're talking about Cher or Mick Jagger) get only so many comebacks. The good news is that this month-old Corner is, in many ways, superior to the original. There's a bar serving fancy cocktails, and a chef with real credentials (Natasha Sears' résumé includes stints at Figlio and Plaza III) behind the line. And the place has probably never been cleaner.
The old Corner crowd has also been returning. On my three visits, I noticed that the clientele leaned heavily toward baby boomers. "We've been hearing a lot of stories about the original Corner," says Slaughter, who manages the dining room during the day. "Even Steve Friedman's family came in to check us out and told us they loved it."
But the new incarnation of the Corner is also drawing the 20- and 30-somethings who consistently patronize Westport's shops and saloons.
Slaughter and Pfeifer have painted the dining room in earth tones (rust, clay, sand) and hung long burlap draperies at the picture windows. The sound system is tuned to an eclectic mix of music. (One afternoon, it was very folky, which a Birkenstock-wearing couple behind us really seemed to dig.) And in shades of the old place, at least one of the servers is in a local band.
There has been some grousing that the new Corner's prices are higher than its predecessor's. They are. But the food quality is much improved, and I don't think the prices are out of line. Still, even my nose got out of joint about forking over 10 bucks for an appetizer: five stringy stalks of asparagus wrapped in prosciutto and tempura-battered and flash-fried. They were tasty enough, but you couldn't really share them.