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The Beacon is a little hung-up on becoming a hangout

The Beacon is a real neighborhood grill.

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A friend of mine calls the Beacon "a clubhouse for Rockhurst graduates to have a couple of beers." Co-owner Whitten Pell prefers that people call the four-month-old restaurant at 5031 Main a tavern. Neither is completely accurate.

Before opening the Beacon, Pell had limited restaurant experience. In fact, he had none. But he did have a vision for this space, which was last occupied by the ill-fated Jack Gage American Tavern. It would be a neighborhood saloon, in the fashion of, say, Cheers (the sitcom bar, not the real-life chain). It would appeal primarily to the middle-aged, middle-class Catholics who grew up in the surrounding Visitation Parish. People like those thirsty Rockhurst alumni. People like Whit Pell.

Judging by the Beacon's interior, what haunts the brass-bar dreams of Pell and his fellow travelers is the faux-rustic pub dining room of the Rockhill Tennis Club. People still miss that departed venue, which enjoyed a partisan following, even if the food itself defied loyalty. The Beacon gives off such a similar feel that you can almost smell a swimming pool and hear tennis players missing their ground strokes.

Some restaurants, for better or worse, are supposed to be clubhouses (O'Neill's Restaurant & Bar in Leawood comes to mind), places so relaxing that their constituents happily eat there a couple of times a week. I worked as a waiter in a midtown restaurant with that very sensibility; the regular clientele, composed primarily of artists, was so loyal that the most familiar of them came in when they weren't hungry. It was their official hangout.

I subscribe to the Groucho Marx theory about clubs ("I wouldn't join any club that would accept me as a member"), so I tend to avoid dining rooms that are aggressively chummy. I admit, though, that this is my own idiosyncrasy, something perhaps left over from trying to avoid my high school cafeteria. Most people I know love to dine in a place where everybody knows their name. That's what Whit Pell and his investors — many of whom also live in this neighborhood — are counting on.

"And that's exactly what has happened," says Pell, who works the dining room like a veteran restaurateur: shaking hands, gossiping, clucking over the food and service (he watches his young, ambitiously attentive servers like a hawk). "We've been marketing to the core neighborhood around this restaurant, and that's the customer base we're bringing in."

Locally based Applebee's may call its cookie-cutter restaurants "neighborhood grills," but the Beacon is the real thing. The neighborhood part comes easily on its own, but the grill part is under discussion. The Beacon's menu is already getting a shake-up, after a review of first-quarter sales. According to Pell, the plan is to condense the original, which is heavy on sandwiches and burgers (at fair price points, between $9 and $13). Two of those, which are vegetarian-friendly items, are coming down: the Italian caprese wrap (a mozzarella sandwich) and a pita stuffed with seared vegetables and black beans. Another casualty: the grilled, double-cut pork chop, which I tasted and thought was excellent and well-priced. ("We'll bring it back as a daily special," Pell says.)

The Beacon would do well to shrink some of the actual food, too. It's easy to make a decent meal out of a couple of the starters, but that's not apparent when the appetizers are listed as "hors d'oeuvres." An hors d'oeuvre is a savory little concoction, like a canapé ("a one- or two-bite size" according to Food Lover's Companion). Pell's isn't the only place to lose sight of that simple idea, but giving that name to a plate of hunky mango-barbecue pulled-pork sliders is egregious (though a little tasty).

"I don't know why we used that word," Pell told me later. "It's so pretentious, and we're anything but a pretentious restaurant." (The man really does stay on message.)

Size notwithstanding, the menu, created by Pell and a culinary consultant, emphasizes standard-issue pub dishes. The traditional choices are all here and all studiously unpretentious: a bowl of chili; that old Houlihan's standby, French onion soup; and a variation on a cobb salad that bears little resemblance to the Hollywood Brown Derby's original. (If Bob Cobb weren't already dead, seeing ranch dressing poured on his namesake salad would kill him.)

There are a couple of clinkers, including "the rocking Russian" burger topped with cold onion straws and Russian dressing. But the French dip sandwich is first-rate, and the $22 strip steak is damn good, sided with pan-roasted vegetables and a mound of mashers that were, when I ordered the dish, actually hot and buttery. A grilled chicken breast, topped with crisp Granny Smith apples and a blanket of melted gruyère, has an effective charm.

Safe, inoffensive chicken dominates this saloon's safe, inoffensive menu. Breaded chicken tenders are among those hulking starters, and no fewer than three entrée-sized salads include the bird (the Asian chop salad, with Thai-basil chicken, didn't live up to the menu buildup). The dinner list, too, includes a grilled breast (dripping with roasted-pepper butter), a bubbling chicken Parmesan (very good) and a hearty potpie in a soothing garlic cream sauce (that will be a lot more comforting when autumn rolls around).

I've dined here just once for Sunday brunch, and I'll probably keep it that way. That's a tough meal to pull off in any neighborhood saloon, but the Beacon's brunch menu adds unnecessary complications. No, strike that: It suffers from delusions of grandeur. If you're going to offer eggs Florentine and eggs Benedict, you need a hollandaise that's not thin and stingy. And a pub standard — biscuits and gravy — here comes out second-rate, with sausage gravy (house-made, Pell says) that could hardly be less robust or creamy. I saw just two occupied tables in the room that morning, and that says volumes. Pell and his partners need to remind themselves that, as much potential as the Beacon has as a basic lunch-and-dinner spot, this is a neighborhood bar and grill, not Café Europa.

"We do understand what our clientele wants," Pell told me when I challenged him on that brunch. "When our new menu comes out in a few weeks, we'll be introducing half-price burger night and prime-rib night, and begin serving fried chicken on Sundays."

Good! The Beacon may yet see the light.

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