JOCO Dining: Its days as a pick-up spot past, Houlihan’s evolves with its patrons

Photo via Houlihan's.
Photo via Houlihan’s.

By Charles Ferruzza

I like to think that I came of age with the Kansas City-based Houlihan’s Restaurant & Bar – which was still called Houlihan’s Old Place when I was in college in the 1970s — and the fledgling chain, so unlike any other traditional restaurant and bar, was the cutting edge of modern dining.

Houlihan’s, with its eclectic and imaginative décor, didn’t look like any other restaurant at the time and the lively bar component of the restaurant had a reputation, back during the swinging 1970s of being a prime place to “pick up” an attractive single who might be sitting there, drinking alone, but definitely looking.

I thought of that odd historical footnote when I recently clicked on the Houlihan’s website and there was, right next to a sales pitch for their scallops offer, a little newsy tidbit headlined “Did You Know?” and this bit of useless information: “The most overused pickup line is ‘If I could rearrange the alphabet, I’d put U and I together.’” It’s also the least effective.

I can assure you, as a survivor of that era, it would have been just as ineffective in 1979, but in those wild and crazy days, a good “pick-up line,” always took a back seat to “Let me buy you another cocktail.”

Cocktails were cheap in those days and so were most of the other signature food items on the Houlihan’s Old Place, including escargot, French onion soup, omelets, burgers and a London Broil steak.

It seems unlikely to think of Houlihan’s being a hipster hangout during the short-lived disco era, but it was – both before and after that – for reasons that seem utterly implausible today.

For one thing, 45 years after legendary restaurateurs Joe Gilbert and Paul Robinson opened the flagship Houlihan’s Old Place on the Country Club Plaza – the name came from the men’s clothing store that formerly leased the location – the very elements that defined the restaurant concept in the beginning (the nostalgic, oddball décor, the eclectic menu, the youthful and sexy vibe) are long gone. The place has evolved into a more conventional dining venue and the demographic that like to dine there are, unsurprisingly, mostly middle-aged.

I’m sure that I represent at least a portion of that demographic. I’m over 50 and I’d certainly feel awkward in the Houlihan’s Old Place of my 20s, so there’s something comforting about the Fairway location, which isn’t too loud, none too brightly lit and designed to be sleekly attractive, but seriously unobtrusive. Houlihan’s restaurants now look like the kind of place my parents would have liked. Any why not? Most Baby Boomers now are their parents, desiring comfort over sexiness and price points over “pick-up lines.”

The menu, which changes quarterly, still mixes up the culinary influences (Korean chicken, chicken fettucine Alfredo, barbecue baby back ribs, organic potstickers) and the restaurants are due for the introduction of a new menu in the next week or so.

A newer addition is a mess of slow-braised short ribs – not on the bone, unfortunately, but chopped up like burnt ends and smothered in a glossy brown gravy – served over a heap of mashed spuds and sided with delicious sautéed Brussel sprouts. It’s a comfort food in the classic sense: hearty, tasty, stick-to-your-ribs, but unexciting, definitely unsexy.

And yet, looking around the dining room on a busy Thursday night, I realized that this restaurant no longer required even a modicum of sex appeal. I don’t think I saw anyone, even at the bar, under 40 years of age. And the lovely lady dining with her daughter across from my table was in her 90s.

But that’s a fact of life that’s unavoidable in the restaurant business: The hipster diners invariably get old – and more concerned with their actual hips than the new bands or the latest films – and the only restaurants that survive in this economy are the ones that keep pace with the changes.

No pick-up lines necessary.