A black-and-white photograph in the lobby of the new 77 South restaurant in Leawood shows a handsome couple. She's a vivacious-looking blonde with big, bouncy hair; he has serious sideburns and wears one of the natty polyester jacket-and-pants combinations known in the 1970s as a leisure suit.
You need to study this photograph to truly appreciate the concept of 77 South, a restaurant that exists as a kind of tribute to this snazzy couple: Sleepy and Cynthia Arnold, the groovy creators of a long-forgotten disco called 77 South that operated for several swingin' years at 77th Street and Troost.
The nightclub was sold in 1980, about the same time that disco was falling out of favor. When disco died, a whole cultural identity fizzled out — taking 77 South with it. I know: I worked at an ill-fated disco restaurant that opened in 1979, precisely when the disco phenomenon peaked. The restaurant was passé practically before it opened.
But the distinctive music and fashion of the era were hot stuff in 1971 when the Arnolds opened 77 South. Its illuminated dance floor (the first in the area) was the same kind that John Travolta later spun around on in Saturday Night Fever. Sleepy's son, Chris Arnold, was just a toddler in 1971, but even today he remembers the colored lights under the dance floor and the beat of the music.
Chris Arnold is now 43 years old. His mother, Cynthia, is deceased, and Sleepy (who would go on to own another nightclub, Yesterdays, also on Troost) is long retired. But when Chris and his business partner, Mike Howell (a former general manager at J. Gilbert's), took over the lease of a vacant venue at 5041 West 135th Street, they brought disco with them.
The location, which opened as a Jimmy Buffet's Cheeseburger in Paradise and later became Tannahs Asian Bistro, has a demographic primarily of baby boomers, the very generation that loved and then abandoned the likes of Donna Summer, Barry White, and KC and the Sunshine Band.
Arnold decided that a restaurant with upscale food, a modest dance floor and a 1970s soundtrack might be a popular counterpoint to another operation directed at the boomer crowd: the Gaslight Grill, a combination jazz club and restaurant a few blocks away. Both restaurants offer live music, a relatively sophisticated menu, smooth service and Sunday brunch. A friend of mine who has dined in both restaurants calls them throwbacks to a time when going out to eat was its own entertainment. "These restaurants are for the anti-Cheddars crowd," she says.
Both restaurants are definitely designed for Leawood's older clientele, though the food at the two-month-old 77 South isn't outrageously expensive. Most of the dinner entrees are under $20, and the pasta dishes average even less.
I can't believe that former Granite City chef Bill Eck, who oversees the 77 South kitchen, intentionally added the same dishes that I remember from restaurant menus of the 1970s: stuffed mushrooms, baked brie and lobster tail. (Eck deep-fries his tail, however, which would have been heresy during the Carter administration.) I don't know what provokes a more frightening flashback: eating gooey, molten brie baked in a pastry wrapper (it looks like a blintz, actually) or hearing Donna Summer moan "Love to Love You, Baby" while eating the brie. The only things missing — for me, anyway — are the drugs and a 30-inch waistline.
Many more waistlines than just mine were under assault as early as the 1970s, when the concept of a sumptuous Sunday brunch was at its pinnacle. People were hungry after a night of shaking their groove things and God only knows what else. I've eaten much more elaborate brunches than the spread laid out at 77 South, but this one has its own peculiar charm. The Mexican-inspired egg casserole defies description, but it's preferable to a prime rib that, the day I sampled it, looked gorgeous but was almost too sinewy to cut with a steak knife.