It's not too late to raise a toast to the memory of a great restaurant owner: Victor Fontana. But nothing too fancy.
"Victor wasn't a big drinker," says restaurant veteran Laser Avery, who worked for Fontana, on and off, for over three decades. "But if he did have a drink, it was a scotch and water."
Avery is one of the many, many men and women in Kansas City's restaurant community who got their start working for Fontana, who died last Friday at age 73 after a long and difficult illness. "But he never complained," says restaurateur Michael Garozzo, who began his Kansas City career working for Fontana in the 1970s. "He kept his sense of humor to the end."
Fontana, who attended Rockhurst University, took over his father's restaurant and bar, Frank's Place, at 18th and Cherry when his father became ill. After his father's death, Fontana continued to work in the restaurant business for the next half-century.
The first word most people use to describe the late restaurateur Victor Fontana is charisma. He was one of the most charming, gracious and elegant men in the Kansas City restaurant community until his death last Friday.
"He was very charming and very good-looking," recalls Shakespeare Festival founder Marilyn Strauss. "People wanted to go to his restaurants just to see him."
Although Fontana created more than a half-dozen local dining venues during his long career, he's probably best-known for his wildly popular restaurant and disco, Fanny's, which operated in Westport from 1976 to 1978 and again from 1980 to 1985 after Fontana rebuilt the venue after a fire. Michael Garazzo and Laser Avery both worked there.
"It was so ahead of its time," Avery says.
"The food was fantastic, the ambience ... everything," Garozzo says.
Fanny's wasn't the first upscale Italian restaurant in the city (that was the original Jasper's in Waldo), but it was the first fancy restaurant — boasting tuxedoed waiters and an expensive menu — with a dining room wrapped around a glass-enclosed disco dance floor. "It was a wild place," says restaurant publicist Linda Rostenberg. "You saw everyone who was anyone in there. And everyone was doing ... everything."
"I took Rod Stewart there," says author Lou Jane Temple, who was a rock-concert caterer at the time." Victor Fontana was very intelligent and traveled quite a bit," says Leonard Mirabile of Jasper's Restaurant. "He was always looking for new ideas."
After closing Fanny's, Fontana went on to open (and close) several other restaurants, including Villa Fontana, Veco's and Charlie Charlie's on 39th Street, Frankie's on the Plaza (named for his beloved eldest son who was killed in an accidental nightclub shooting in 1996), and the high-concept restaurant and bar Seven, in downtown Kansas City.
Laser Avery, the chef for Fanny's, continued to work for Fontana off and on for the next 35 years. "I think his legacy will outlive him," Avery says. "There was no one like him."