By the time the current Bartle Hall project is finished sometime next year there should be a brand-new Bristol on 14th Street between Main and Walnut. That would mark a triumphant return to the Missouri side of the state line for the seafood concept launched by legendary restaurateurs Joe Gilbert and Paul Robinson back in 1980. A fixture on the Country Club Plaza for 15 years, the Bristol Bar & Grill was busy right up to the day that the J.C. Nichols Company refused to renew its lease in 1995.
At the time, there was a rumor that something fishy was behind the Bristol's loss of its lease: that restaurateur Nabil Haddad, who then owned five Plaza dining operations, coveted the Bristol location. Supposedly his good pal Lynn McCarthy, then chairman and chief executive of the Nichols Company, made sure he got it. The Bristol was kicked out, and Haddad spent a fortune turning the space into a spectacular failure, the short-lived Jules. (Capital Grille took over the location in 2000.) McCarthy didn't fare so well, either. After being accused of looting the Nichols Company, the well-paid executive pleaded guilty to a charge of racketeering conspiracy in 2001.
The Bristol, now owned by Leawood-based Houlihan's Restaurants Inc., had the last laugh. Banished from the Plaza, the restaurant packed up everything including the Bristol's signature architectural feature, a 19th-century English glass dome, which was dismantled piece by piece and installed a year later in the main dining room of a new Bristol in the just-completed Town Center Plaza. The seafood restaurant has been packing in patrons like sardines ever since.
Recently, though, the Florida-based Bonefish Grill arrived in Leawood. I wondered whether it might be luring away some of the Bristol's brisk business, so I went back to the Bristol (last reviewed here in 2002) to see what was going on.
I didn't know whether I'd need a reservation for a Tuesday night, but my intuition told me to go ahead and call, just in case. That turned out to be a good decision, because when I walked through the Bristol's door at 7 p.m. there were already several customers standing around the foyer, waiting for a table.
I was with Dick and Renée, and we didn't have to wait a minute; a hostess escorted us straight to a banquette ... right by the entrance to the kitchen. Ordinarily, I would have balked at this, but I was hungry, and it didn't seem to be too noisy or congested. Besides, the spot made it easy to wave over those tong-wielding biscuit servers who roam the dining room with their trays of hot drop biscuits. Those damned addictive baking-powder confections are another Bristol tradition that moved out to Johnson County with the antique dome; they still taste like the recipe printed on a Bisquick box, but with an extra handful of sugar.
Veteran oyster shucker Virgil Brown also made the move out south. Still, when our server handed over the single-sheet menus, I was surprised to see that the restaurant had changed its name to the Bristol Seafood Grill. "We've been in a transition for the last 12 months," explained one of the managers, ignoring my raised eyebrow. I mean, does a place need to go through a yearlong "transition" just to change a name?