"This was an Irish pub that didn't have any lamb on the menu," says Jeff Wiltfang, the KC restaurant veteran heading up the new staff at the Dubliner. He's telling me just how challenging his job has been so far.
Wiltfang, a former Gilbert-Robinson manager, was working at the National Golf Club of Kansas City last year when he applied for a position at another upscale private club. He didn't get that job, but one of the movers and shakers who sat in on the interviews was impressed enough to call Wiltfang and offer him a gig at a different venue.
"The gentleman who called me was a major investor in the Dubliner, the Irish restaurant and nightspot in the Power & Light District," Wiltfang says. "I met with him, looked at the property and told him he was crazy."
Maybe not the best response but an honest one.
The Irish saloon at 170 East 14th Street opened as Raglan Road in 2008, after a build-out that cost a reported $2 million. It was an ambitiously mounted place, with a 10,000-square-foot interior that included woodwork imported from the ould sod, along with bits and pieces from at least one 130-year-old pub. But its inconsistent food failed to win over patrons, and the space's live-music bookings veered confusingly from Celtic acts to bluegrass. In September 2011, Raglan Road's operator, Great Irish Pubs Florida Inc., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
Several months later, the space's new owner, local entity Downtown Irish Pub Inc., hired KC Hopps - the company behind the 75th Street Brewery and other popular local restaurants - to make modest menu changes and turn Raglan Road into the Dubliner.
Now KC Hopps is out (mostly: "There are still people in the KC Hopps group who are involved in our ownership," Wiltfang says), and a new crew is in.
"This is not the façade of an old Irish pub," says Wiltfang, whom Downtown Irish Pub Inc. hired as director of operations and general manager last October. "It's the real thing."
But it's not all St. Patrick's Day all the time. The Dubliner "changes its personality throughout the day," Wiltfang says. "From 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., we're a family-friendly restaurant. From 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., we're a traditional late-night venue. And from 1 to 3 a.m., we're going to pay more attention to the younger demographic who come to the Power & Light District."
That includes, he says, letting servers wear "more flexible, sexier clothes" when they work the late shift. "We're strict about uniforms during the day but will be less so during the late-night hours."
And Wiltfang says the Dubliner is rolling out a new menu - yes, with lamb - on January 24.
"We're paying a lot more attention to quality," he says. "Our new menu has lamb in the shepherd's pie, and we'll offer lamb kebabs with a Guinness glaze and a grain-mustard dipping sauce."
Other featured dishes include a "Ploughman's Platter" of imported cheeses and locally made sausages. "We're in talks with Alex Pope of Local Pig and the Broadway Butcher Shop," Wiltfang says.
Wiltfang wants customers to think of the Dubliner as a neighborhood bar, even if it's in an unconventional neighborhood. "There is a large population of loft dwellers living downtown, but our location sort of puts us at the far end of that," he says. "But we can change perceptions about what we are."
And what is that?
"An Irish bar," Wiltfang says, "with something for everyone."