This space was originally built six years ago to house an Applebee's Neighborhood Grill. That venue lasted two years, Manning says. The next two tenants were both Mexican-food concepts created by local restaurateur Ed Geiselman: first, a Cactus Grill -- it lasted two years before Geiselman turned it into one of his less-expensive Jose Pepper's restaurants. Pepper's pooped out after two years, too, after Geiselman decided it was a better bet to open a new Jose Pepper's in Liberty.
Once Manning -- the former general manager at Kansas City's Morton's Steakhouse -- took over the lease, he gutted the dining room and bar areas down to the studs, transforming the space into a bright, light and clubby duo of rooms:The dining room is now painted a cool green (the paint shade, Manning says, is "hearts of palm") and white, with extra-wide booths upholstered in chocolate leatherette. It wasn't an expensive make-over, but it's very stylish and comfortable.
You see details in this restaurant that reflect Manning's experience working for other restaurant chains: nice-looking servers in crisp Oxford shirts and aprons (Houston's), an upscale wine list and cocktail selection -- Manning hired his former Morton's bartender, David Smuckler, to oversee the saloon side of the 140-seat restaurant -- where house-made lavender simple syrup is combined with green Chartreuse, Hendrick's gin, lime juice and fresh strawberries to create a Rosemary Monk. Another Morton's co-worker, Anthony Zarate, is the general manager for Tavern in the Village.
Manning began his own career as a teenage busboy at the now-defunct Coyote Grill in Mission. His longest stint for a corporate chain was his 14-year run with Chicago-based Morton's Restaurant Group, Inc. Manning took a job with the Atlanta Morton's in 1996 and worked his way up to general manager and, finally, regional director of operations. He returned to the Kansas City area with his wife and young daughters to open his own restaurant.
Any new restaurant is a gamble in this economy, but Manning felt that the Prairie Village venue was exactly right for a dining concept with a single menu -- used for both lunch and dinner -- with an accessible price point, a simple selection of popular starters (calamari, hummus, sliders), salads, sandwiches and eight entree options. The dishes were created by chef Lon Froneberger, formerly of McCormick & Schmick's and the boutique Oread Hotel in Lawrence. A new addition to the kitchen staff is Kevin Kimbrough as chef de cuisine.
Manning was concerned that because his restaurant looked expensive, it would be perceived as too costly. The entrees range from $12 for a bowl of penne pasta tossed with fresh tomatoes, garlic, basil, kalamata olives, asparagus, feta cheese, and a splash of red-pepper flakes to a $28 Kansas City strip. I mean, Applebee's it ain't, but not Morton's prices, either. And one of the reasons, perhaps, that Tavern in the Village is so appealing to its nearby neighborhoods (Mission Hills and Leawood) is that the country-club crowd prefers something a little snazzier (like Cafe Provence), rather than the other venues in this center, including Minsky's and a forlorn-looking Waids.
Manning prefers not to sum up his restaurant's concept in a word or a sentence. "I'd rather have my customers define who we are," he says.
Good idea! Let's hear what Fat City readers who have already dined at Tavern in the Village say in our Comment section: Go ahead, define the restaurant for us.