Son of a Beach
The Sunset Grill does its best to warm up its little plot of Johnson County asphalt.Published: May 10, 2007
An Internet search turns up actual Sunset Grills or Sunset Grilles all over the United States, in Tennessee, North Carolina, Utah, Virginia, Florida, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania. Some are no-frills beer joints, at least two are upscale hotel restaurants, and one's a golf-course snack shop in Michigan. The Sunset Grill & Tap in Boston serves nearly 100 brands of beer. The Sunset Grill in the Hilton Maldives Resort is built on stilts over a coral reef.
And then there's the Sunset Grill in Overland Park, which is not, I'm sorry to say, built on stilts overlooking an azure sea. The view from its big windows is a blacktop parking lot. Inside, the ambience is pretend-tropical, in the same way that listening to a Jimmy Buffett album while sipping a Blue Whale cocktail feels tropical. But even a faux beachfront shack is a lot more interesting than a lot of the chain restaurants in this corner of Overland Park. And if this independently owned Sunset Grill has a lot more in common with a traditional neighborhood grill than a dining room at a seaside resort, that's not a bad thing. Johnson County's sprawling suburbs could use a few more friendly hangouts like this one, the creation of owners Rod Lampe and Dan Tierney, who — surprise! — took their establishment's name from the Don Henley song (which doesn't have a damn thing to do with food).
Henley does invite his listeners to "watch the working girls go by" — a visual that's unimaginable at 145th Street and Metcalf unless the working girl is a crisply dressed corporate executive driving her Lexus to the Stein Mart around the corner.
I brought a high-powered interior designer, Carol Ann, with me on one of my four visits to the Sunset Grill. She's a very busy working gal who rarely ventures south of 119th Street — though the promise of a pre-supper spin through that Stein Mart sold her on the date. After an ever-so-brief shopping expedition, we did the suburban thing and got back in the car to drive the two blocks to the restaurant. Walk? Maybe if there had been a beach.
Lampe and Tierney have done a pretty good job of creating a coastal ambience on a limited budget. They've split the dining room with an array of tropical plants and a bubbling fountain; Casablanca-style fans slowly revolve overhead. They've left the floor concrete and upholstered the booths in synthetic burlap.
"It's cute," Carol Ann said. "And very much aimed at a family crowd," she noted, looking at a nice young couple with two well-behaved adolescents sitting nearby.
Baby boomers, too. Several months ago, on my first visit, I cringed when the young guitarist performing in the lounge launched into Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline" and followed it up with America's "Horse With No Name."
"I know what you're thinking," Carol said that night. "There's kind of a 1970s feel to this restaurant."
Her words rang particularly true when I opened the menu and saw some interesting similarities between it and the Houlihan's menu from that bygone era. Back in the '70s, Houlihan's featured different kinds of burgers and salads, imaginative soups, a couple of steak options and festive cocktails. Similarly, the Sunset Grill tries to put an equatorial spin on almost everything — sometimes with tasty results but not always.
Instead of the ubiquitous spinach-artichoke dip, for example, the Sunset Grill serves jalapeño-artichoke dip, though the primary ingredient seems to be cream cheese. It's an addictive, creamy concoction that's smooth at first bite but packs an unexpected wallop. And instead of serving "Tuxedo Shrimp," Lampe and Tierney call their version Texas shrimp because they stuff the bacon-wrapped crustaceans with jalapeños.
Perhaps a hot pepper or two might have helped the crummy crab cakes, which were doughy and soggy. "A waste of perfectly good lump crab," Carol Ann sniffed, pushing the plate away. Things went from bad to worse for her. Now, Carol Ann is a snob about many things but not food. That didn't stop her from sending back her thick slab of grilled tuna steak, topped with a jalapeño-citrus salsa, twice because it was too pink in the center. The staff was accommodating, but she never warmed up to the meal. "I should have ordered the salmon," she said.
I made a much wiser choice with the Baja shrimp tacos: soft flour tortillas stuffed with garlic-sautéed shrimp, tomatoes, onions, peppers and, oddly enough, Parmesan cheese. They were sided with a weird but surprisingly satisfying "Island Slaw," which wasn't so much about chopped cabbage as Ramen noodles in a sweet vinaigrette.
Waiters and waitresses here are young, attractive and peppy; they actually seemed to have been trained in the art of attentive service. "It's a fun place to work," one of the waitresses confessed to me, "because the owners are very hands-on and care about details."
I know that's true because on all of my visits, I saw one or both of the owners working — really hustling — which is an increasingly rare sight in today's restaurant scene. In fact, when I returned with Franklin and Richard on a Sunday night, the whole staff was hopping. "Is this place ever not busy?" I asked our server. "Oh, sure," she said. "It slows down a bit after 9 p.m. This is Johnson County, you know."