Take my friend Kitty, for example. She has a phobia about Johnson County, even though she was born and raised there. Frankly, she's more comfortable confessing lurid tales from her pre-marriage sex life (including a hilarious hot-tub orgy) than admitting that she grew up in Overland Park. Ever since she moved back to Kansas City from New York City and settled on the Missouri side of State Line, she's been a confirmed midtowner. She actually cringed when I invited her to dinner at a restaurant at 114th Street and Metcalf.
"You know how I feel about going all the way out there," she said, rolling her eyes. "I don't have anything in common with those people."
Out there? Those people? The restaurant was maybe 17 minutes from her house, and I wouldn't have been at all surprised to see Kitty's own parents dining there. It wasn't the distance that annoyed Kitty but the fact that the venue in question, J. Alexander's, has an almost Stepford Wives-like quality. This corporate restaurant strives so intensely for middle-class perfection that when it occasionally fumbles, the results are as jarring as being jolted from a soothing dream by an earthquake.
That's because no one expects such a well-oiled machine to stall in the first place. J. Alexander's operates as slickly and efficiently as an automobile assembly line, thanks to the savvy business model initiated by the Nashville-based company's three original founders (including the late Jack Massey, who operated both a giant hospital conglomerate and the Kentucky Fried Chicken empire). The payoff for investors in the J. Alexander's Corporation has been solid: The company, which owns and operates 27 of the restaurants in 12 states, saw a 47 percent rise in second-quarter net income this year, and same-store sales for the period increased 7.8 percent.
Clearly these "full-service, contemporary upscale American restaurants" -- which are nearly always located in the suburbs -- are doing something right. And even a critical snob like me appreciates all the nice details: cloth napkins, comfortable booths and chairs, an uncomplicated menu with most of the dishes and dressings made from scratch, attentive service, gigantic portions.
But even the technologically advanced, perfectly programmed robot beauties in The Stepford Wives could go haywire, and J. Alexander's has its own little bizarre glitches, too. Like the lighting in the cavernous, wood-beamed dining room (intimate as a barn), which erratically plunged from a dimly illuminated "romantic" level to near pitch blackness at precisely 7:10 p.m. on a Friday. I was dining with Kitty, her husband, Dan, and my friend Bob, who momentarily thought he was going blind.
"Good God," said Dan as we all struggled to read the 16-point type on the menu. "Is this an eclipse?"
We asked a roaming waiter about the dramatic light change, and he glibly answered, "We have some new people up at the front. Maybe they don't understand the rheostat." We soon came to learn that the "new people" were responsible for any and all mistakes in the restaurant. A pushy food runner? "He's new." A frazzled hostess? "She's new." A funky glass of wine? "It's new to the wine list."