Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Views without a Room: Skies and Benton's close tonight

Posted By on Wed, Nov 30, 2011 at 5:50 PM

The days of high-altitude restaurants is over in Kansas City
  • The day of the high-altitude restaurant is over in Kansas City

You still press the "B" button on the express elevator in the lobby of the Westin Crown Center Hotel to get to the restaurant on the 19th floor.

That dining room has been, for the last 17 years, a steakhouse named after artist Thomas Hart Benton; there have been several incarnations of the name, most recently Benton's Prime Steakhouse. After tonight, the 12 signed Thomas Hart Benton prints that have hung in the venue for over two decades will return to their original owner (a trust that had the art on loan to the restaurant). More than a dozen longtime employees, including chefs, servers, bartenders and manager Brent Grider, will move on to other jobs in the two Crown Center hotels — the Westin and the former Hyatt — now both operated by Starwood Hotels & Resorts. Starwood will rebrand the Hyatt as a Sheraton Hotel in January.

Tomorrow morning, at 8 a.m., Grider — general manager of Benton's for the last four years — starts his new job as general manager of Milano, the Italian restaurant in the Crown Center complex. The Benton's head bartender moves downstairs to the Brasserie restaurant, which will become the only restaurant operating in a hotel that once boasted three of the snazziest dining rooms in the city: Benton's, the Brasserie, and Trader Vic's.

Today marks the end of an era.

"Skies and Benton's represent a bygone era," says John Martellaro, who was the Kansas City Star restaurant critic from 1990 to 1997 (he's currently director of media relations for Trozzolo Communications). "They were dining rooms, particularly Skies, that were much more about the place than the food."

Martellaro says the style of dining in the 1980s and early 1990s was very different from what more sophisticated patrons expect today: "Now people are much more excited about what's on the plate than the view or the decor."

Is the day of the special-occasion restaurant over? I asked Grider.

"It's a nationwide trend," Grider says, "that restaurants like Benton's and Skies are in decline. People want casual dining."

Tonight is a bittersweet finale for the Benton's employees, Two veterans of the dining room, Connie Drury (who started working at Benton's 32 years ago, when this room was still the Top of the Crown restaurant) and 28-year veteran Dana Austin, were too emotional to discuss the closing of the restaurant with Fat City. Both servers raced around the dining room in the late afternoon, setting tables and polishing glasses.

"They're upset, naturally, with this final night to say goodbye to their longtime regular customers," Grider says. "A lot of familiar faces are coming in tonight for the last night. These servers have known many of our regulars for years and developed relationships with them. They've been here for their anniversary dinners, birthdays and special occasions. I think there will be a lot of memories shared tonight."

Both Drury and Austin plan to remain with the company: Drury will move down to the Brasserie as dining-room supervisor, and Austin will follow Grider to Milano. "We've attempted to find the opportunity for different positions for most of our staff," Grider says.

Starwood plans to turn Benton's into a social catering and banquet space, Grider says. "I'm not sure what the plans are for the final design of the room."

The dining room has been sold-out for tonight's dinner for weeks," Grider says. "Most of the reservations are for regulars that have been dining here for years."

I wish I could be there, too.

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