One of New York City's most iconic restaurateurs, Elaine Kaufman, died last week at age 81. Kaufman was the owner and very public face of Elaine's, her namesake restaurant on New York City's Upper East Side.
Although the restaurant was legendary as a hangout for famous writers and movie stars, KCUR 89.3's Steve Walker -- a frequent visitor to the restaurant -- said that the only "star" he ever saw there was Bo Derek -- who was walking out of the joint as he was walking in.
The biggest celebrity, literally, that he ever saw in the restaurant was Kaufman herself. "She was big, huge," he says. "She sat at a table squarely in line with the front door and every time the door opened, she would swing her head around the person sitting in front of her to see who was coming in."
Now that chefs have attained celebrity status, the restaurateurs -- the former "front of the house" celebrities -- have lost some cachet. That is, if you can find one of those owners actually working. Thanks to chain restaurants, there aren't that many of them left.
In Kansas City, the Mirabile brothers of Jasper's Restaurant, continue to work the dining room, as their late father did before them. Co-owner Leonard has always been the official host of the room, greeting guests, chatting with the regulars and fussing over favored customers; chef Jasper Junior frequently leaves his post in the kitchen to prepare table-side mozzarella or engage customers in lively conversation. This is the way that local restaurateurs -- dating back to the legendary Joe Gilbert who memorized the names of three new customers every day -- were trained to be.
The other local restaurant owners that I frequently see working the room -- greeting guests, clearing tables, carrying out orders and, you know, working -- are Kelso Pizza's Jeff Kelso; Bo Lings owners Richard and Theresa Ng; Jim Chappell of Chappell's Restaurant and Sports Museum; Peter, Nicolas and Elizabeth Grunaeur of Grunaeur, Michael and Nancy Smith at Extra Virgin and Michael Smith, Hot Basil's Lee Chai, "Tito Le Chef" at the Latin Bistro and Julian's Celina Tio, to name a few.
There's an art to schmoozing customers, to make them feel warm and wanted and important. Joe DiGiovanni (last seen at Zest in Leawood) was a master of the game. Mike Donegan at Stroud's is very good at the art form and so is Beth Barden, the chef-owner of Succotash who is also a deliciously salty raconteur.
I won't mention the former restaurant owner who was such a stuck-up prig that no one blinked when her upscale boite bit the dust. Or the restaurant owner who took his favored customers to a back room to do some blow, or the to-the-manor-born owner who wouldn't acknowledge customers -- even ones he knew from his country club.
For some reason, they're all out of the business now.