Most modern restaurants have their own set of gimmicks, which isn't such a bad thing in the highly competitive Kansas City restaurant scene. Some restaurants offer really inexpensive food, others offer a lot of glamour or romantic appeal. The Cheesecake Factory, for example, has a reputation for wonderful cheesecake and dinners served in outrageously large portions. The trendy new Zin is already famous for expensive dinners served in somewhat stingy portions.
The stucco-and-wood, Tudor-style building that houses J. Riley's Restaurant (7953 State Line Road) was built for a popular chain restaurant, Steak and Ale, which had a pretty snazzy gimmick for the 1970s: prime rib and a big salad bar offered in a setting "inspired by the welcoming English country inns of the 18th century," according to the chain's Web site. In the past decade, this two-story building has housed several establishments, including a forgettable seafood restaurant and a place called Charlie's Lodge, which turned the "18th century" dark interior and warren of small dining rooms into a rustic cabin, complete with light fixtures made from animal horns and framed prints of game hunters and fishermen.
Charlie's is gone, but the masculine lodge interior and all the campground memorabilia remain for the building's newest tenant, restaurateur John Riley. Riley is a restaurant veteran, having worked for the Houston's chain for a decade before opening his own place.
"I thought it would be new, different, exciting, and challenging," Riley said of opening his own restaurant.
None of those words could be used to accurately describe his namesake restaurant, which still looks like its predecessor (although it's had a pleasant exterior paint job) and serves traditional American neighborhood restaurant fare: pork chops, barbecued ribs, a Kansas City strip, mashed potatoes, and -- on Monday nights -- prime rib.
But does the place need a gimmick to stand out in the KC crowd? The food is hearty enough and reasonably priced. And since the demise of Joe's Restaurant (which became Sanderson's Diner for a few minutes) just down the block, there's definitely a niche available for a casual, all-American lunch and dinner spot in that area. But what will make J. Riley's a destination point? There's no salad bar (the old Steak and Ale salad bar is now a bizarre tableau featuring stuffed, feathered turkeys) like that of Sweet Tomatoes a few blocks away. Will salads, sandwiches, and such homestyle fare as country-fried catfish ($10.75) do for J. Riley's what it has for such nearby neighborhood places as the Romanelli Grill and Michael's Grill?
Sure, there are several more exotic dishes on the J. Riley's menu, though not all of them are well-executed. A stuffed portabella mushroom appetizer ($7.95) is not so much stuffed as it is topped off with a layer of tart blue cheese, a blanket of melted mozzarella and cheddar, chopped tomatoes, and scallions. There's no actual description of it on the menu, so it was something of a mystery before it arrived at the table. What would it be "stuffed" with? Nothing, as it turned out.
Then there's the spicy chicken pasta ($11.75) I sampled one night, which had pan-blackened chicken strips and portabella mushrooms lurking in the midst of fettuccine in a surprisingly salty "spicy Alfredo sauce." I asked the server (who had recently abandoned his career as a tree-trimmer, he told us) what the spices were in the Alfredo sauce.
"The same spices we use to make the Cajun chicken strips," he said. "They just throw a little in the sauce."
On that visit, I shared an early dinner with two friends in a cozy little booth in one of the smaller dining rooms. The restaurant was getting busy, and the clientele -- at that hour, anyway -- seemed to run the gamut from middle-age to antiquity. We had barely looked down at our menus when a screeching voice in the next booth silenced our own conversation as would the sound of shattering glass.
"That salmon is so raw," an elderly woman was complaining to her server, "I wondered if it still had a hook in it." She guffawed at her own joke, then snapped, "Take it back to the kitchen and bring me another martini."
This offstage voice, as loud and grating as chalk on a blackboard, would become an unseen, uninvited guest at our table. Before any of us could complete a sentence, let alone a story, the lady in the next booth would cackle out some intriguing response to her quiet dinner companion that could be heard on both sides of State Line.
As our server took our dinner order (my friend Cindy shuddered at the sight of the dirty cuffs on his shirtsleeves) and I debated between the spicy chicken pasta and a chicken dish stuffed with artichoke hearts, spinach, and Parmesan cheese ($11.95), the mysterious voice blurted out: "He's the reason I lost my inheritance!"
"I'm sure we're missing a very good story," said my friend Bob, ordering the Brie Tenderloin ($16.95). "Should I ask her to join us?"
Join us? She was already there -- in spirit, if not in body. After hearing many snippets of her sad story ("He cheated me out of everything, including Mother's amber brooch. And I won't tell you what he did to the dog!"), I was almost disappointed when she -- and her foghorn voice -- finally left; I never did hear what happened to the poor dog. But by this point, our salads had arrived, each a tidy affair of iceberg lettuce, carrots, cabbage, hard-boiled egg, and bacon bits that could be tarted up with one of seven salad dressings, including the unmemorable buttermilk ranch with which I drenched mine.
Dinner was a brighter note. Bob gobbled down his cheese-stuffed tenderloin, tender and swathed in a bordelaise sauce dotted with mushrooms. Cindy, who can be a fussy eater, was perfectly satisfied with her skewers of grilled chicken, marinated in a tangy teriyaki sauce, and vegetables ($10.95). I used my mobile fork to sample something from every plate, finally deciding that the tenderloin was the best offering on the table, certainly superior to my over-spiced pasta.
We didn't stick around for dessert that night, but on a subsequent visit, I returned to the same table and had a good bacon cheeseburger ($6.95) and a big slab of apple pie. I found myself actually missing that annoying disembodied voice from the previous visit, and even though an oddball musical soundtrack was playing (on one visit we heard everything from Patsy Cline to Sting), the dining room seemed utterly, deafeningly silent.
If generous portions of popular, reasonably priced American dinners are gimmick enough, then J. Riley's should make a name for itself. But if John Riley wants to step ahead of the crowded neighborhood restaurant market, he'll need to take a cue from his loudest customer: Make a dinner experience so memorable, diners will never forget it. But that's not a gimmick, it's an art.
Contact Charles Ferruzza at 816-218-6925 or email@example.com.
J. Riley's Restaurant 7953 State Line Rd., KCMO, 816-333-6363
Hours: Mon.-Thurs, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sat., 4-10 p.m.
FOOD: Two stars
SERVICE: Two stars
ATMOSPHERE: Two stars
OVERALL: Two StarsInside J. Riley's masculine interior, the food is hearty and reasonably priced, but is that enough?