Dempsey’s Burger Bar is struggling to catch on outside LFK

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Question: What is the biggest difference between the two-month-old Dempsey’s Burger Pub in Westport and the Lawrence original?

Answer: Customers.

I’ve never been in the Lawrence venue when the saloon and burger emporium wasn’t bustling, jarringly noisy and vibrating with upbeat energy.

The Kansas City Dempsey’s, not so much. After four meals in the place, in the space formerly occupied by the short-lived Blanc Burgers + Bottles, I never found it to be buzzing with activity or vivacity. In fact, there was such an air of languor and — dare I say — ennui about it that I found myself calling it Dumpsey’s.

Maybe it just needs to catch on with the right people. The burgers are reasonably priced if not aggressively creative. The service is friendly and attentive, although it’s easy to be attentive when there’s only one occupied table in the dining room. The bartending staff, including former Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange mixologist Jenn Tosatto, is first-rate.

Still, at this point, the Westport Dempsey’s is a wallflower among the entertainment district’s more lively restaurants. Is it trying too hard or not hard enough? I can’t decide. Different staffers have told me that business is picking up, but the two dining areas, paneled in old barn wood, were pretty much vacant on each of my visits.

The uncomplicated menu here is nearly identical to that of the Lawrence location, but some tweaking of the local Dempsey’s is in order. When the food at this booze-and-burger bistro is good, it’s very good. When it isn’t, it’s dreadful.

Only five starter options are available, the highlight being a trio of beef sliders, topped with shallot marmalade and sharp cheddar. The inscrutably weird “bacon flight” — slices of pork poking out of three small cups filled with, respectively, an intense Guinness reduction, a supposedly “spicy” beer cheese and a chipotle aioli — was neither tasty nor relevant.

There are chicken wings (what burger joint doesn’t have those?) in two flavors: a roasted-garlic sauce that isn’t very garlicky and a grilled-pineapple glaze that’s not fruity, smoky, sweet or spicy. The latter, in fact, tasted a lot like the roasted garlic wings, but in a different shade of burnt umber.

One of my dining companions, a vegetarian, liked the fried quinoa balls served on skewers with a sweet chili aioli. But I thought nine bucks was exorbitant for an appetizer that tasted like fried sawdust. There’s a quinoa burger patty, too, which was slightly better than the meatless balls I had tried. The pickled carrot-jalapeño slaw gave it a lot more punch (and style) than the meatless patty deserved.

Dempsey’s offers 12 burgers (two are meatless; the portobello sandwich is also labeled gluten-free) plus an off-menu weekly special. I tried the featured “Up Down” burger, which paid homage to the Big Boy burgers of the 1960s: two patties layered with cheese, tomato, lettuce and house-made Thousand Island dressing on a brioche bun. It came very close to its inspiration and was delicious.

The more basic burgers — a house Angus patty with cheddar and house-made pickles and a bacon-mushroom-swiss creation — are big, juicy and pretty damn good. They’re served without fries, which range from $3 for a side to $7 for an indulgent “basket.” The house fries tossed in duck fat are the best-tasting but probably the worst for your cholesterol.

Then again, there’s not much on the Dempsey’s menu that’s going to fall into the healthy-dining category: There are three salads, and one of them has a burger patty on top.

By far the greasiest — and most disappointing — nonburger choice is a basket of fish and chips. The fries far outclassed the tough and chewy black-cod filet, which came heavily armored in a peppery battered crust that had spent far too long in the fryer. I like the idea of beer-battered fish in a restaurant that serves so many varieties of ale, but this wasn’t what I was expecting.

One of the featured desserts here (in fact, the only sweet that isn’t a shake or a float) is a chocolate salted-caramel pie — made in-house — that wasn’t available on any of my visits.

“We just sell out of it so fast,” a server explained.

If it’s that good, I hope I get the opportunity to try it someday. After all, a dozen burgers, five kinds of fries, and greasy fish do not a hit restaurant make. And unless Dempsey’s ups its game, it might stay in the Dumpseys for a long time.

Categories: Food & Drink, Restaurant Reviews