Earlier this month, bulldozers tore down the remains of Kansas City's original Hereford House at 20th Street and Main after an explosion and fire had shuttered it for good in October 2008. The place was iconic — even though I never included it on a list of the city's best steakhouses, I know a lot of people who did. In fact, I once got into an argument on an airplane with a stranger who insisted that the 20th Street Hereford House was the best steakhouse in the world.
What that Hereford House did have, in abundance, was tradition. The serving staff rarely changed, which was comforting, and the menu didn't seem to change much either. The regulars liked that.
But the place was dowdy, to be polite. My friend Truman worked as a waiter there in the 1970s and said it was kind of grungy even then — at that time, the restaurant wasn't even 20 years old. But he had great respect for its first owner, Jack Webb: "He was very courtly, very old-school," Truman said. "He was always dressed to the nines ... a real gentleman."
This Jack Webb shouldn't be confused with the star of the 1960s Dragnet TV series (even if that Jack Webb did star in a 1950s movie, Pete Kelly's Blues, set in a Kansas City speakeasy), but both were stars in different spheres. "Everyone in town knew the Hereford House's Jack Webb," Truman said. "It was a very popular place even though it was a little on the shabby side. I used to tell people that it went through a rough patch and never got out of it."
That remained true after Rod Anderson bought it in 1987 and began opening other Hereford Houses throughout the metro.
I recently took Truman and our friend Lorraine to dinner at the Prime Rib Grill by Hereford House, Anderson's replacement for his late, lamented icon. Three months ago, the Prime Rib Grill took over the nondescript, two-story brick building across the street on Walnut that had served as the Anderson Restaurant Group's catering hall for many years. Fans of the old Hereford House, including lots of tourists, have given the new restaurant their seal of approval because it has the spirit of the original, even though it's cleaner, has a different menu and has dropped a few half-century-old traditions.
A lot of art from the old Hereford House made it to the new dining rooms, including the bull's-head stained-glass window near the bar. But nowhere did I see my favorite piece of kitsch: an oil painting of John Wayne's head floating over a desert landscape. I hope it survived the wrecking ball.
Truman noticed other changes immediately. "They don't wheel out the dinners on carts anymore," he said. "And they don't bring out the salad dressings in the metal Lazy Susan with the three different containers. One had pink dressing, another had orange, and I can't remember what the other color was — blue cheese, I think."
It may be "by Hereford House," but the Prime Rib Grill is significantly different from its namesake. The oddly configured space is much more pleasant, and I think the food is much better. The Capital Grille or Ruth's Chris Steak House it isn't, but that has never been Anderson's demographic. He knows what his patrons want: a reasonably priced complete meal — including a salad or soup, rolls and a side dish — and, damn it, that's what they get.
We loved the baseball-sized, yeasty rolls made from leftover mashed potatoes. They were scrumptious, although the salt glaze was a shade too salty.