Lunch was for the less adulterously inclined, though there was still a touch of sinfulness to gossiping over a vodka stinger or brandy alexander on the ruse of planning a charity event. Hell, I'll drink to that!
In his song, Sondheim called this vanishing breed of well-bred, well-married and nonworking ladies the dinosaurs surviving the crunch. But dinosaur bones belong in museums, and the stylish society lady needs a noninstitutional setting for her forays into the real world. The fictional Kansas City matriarch Mrs. Bridge wouldn't lunch just anywhere, nor will her modern counterpart.
Plaza restaurants, such as the Bristol, once curried favor with this set by offering weekday champagne brunches and noon fashion shows with models in full-length furs. But the Plaza is too plebeian now, its merchants more interested in the tourist trade than the carriage trade. Café Europa and Aixois in Crestwood have the right social cachet, but "they get crowded so quickly and they're so noisy," complains one socialite.
That's why local doyennes are thanking heaven for philanthropist Shirley Bush Helzberg (the wife of diamond-magnate Barnett). She packed up all the European antiques and tasteful gift items from the old Crestwood Galleries at 55th and Brookside and took the whole kit and caboodle (along with the interior designer, manager and chef) downtown. Helzberg has spent the last year overseeing the elegant renovation of the 117-year-old Webster School (at the southeast corner of the field where Julia Irene Kauffman's new performing arts center will sit). After three decades of turning their Chanel-clad backs on Kansas City's core, the matrons are back, fearlessly parking their SUVs and BMWs at 17th and Wyandotte.
To be fair, socialites aren't the only ones dining in the restaurant that takes up the second floor of the old school (which now looks like the set of Tara inside). It just feels that way.
I've had lunch at Webster's five times since it opened, and a few businessmen have always been among the linen-and-pearls contingent. One afternoon I even saw the hostess escorting a trio of attractive twenty-somethings wearing T-shirts, shorts and sandals into the clublike "library" room -- directly to the worst table in the place, hidden in a back corner. I was eating solo that afternoon, up at the bar where I could get a good look at the rest of the patrons in the restaurant's most masculine room. There, a fat man in a suit dined with a languid redhead, a beefy guy conversed with a chubby gal over bread and butter, and four straight-backed, middle-aged dames alternately scowled at each other and devoured chef Timothy Johnson's cuisine.
"People are going there for the food, not to be seen," insists a friend of mine, a Mission Hills food snob who also says the two-month-old restaurant, which only serves lunch, "is all the rage right now."
That must be true, since it's hard to get a reservation on short notice. I sort of snuck in that day I ate at the bar, where I got first-class attention from the bartender. My perfectly enjoyable lunch that day started with a cup of cold, creamy yellow soup made with cucumber, mango and cilantro -- and luscious lemons, just tart enough to offset the mango's brash sweetness. I chose the day's penne pasta special, which came tossed in a sleek "velvet" sauce made with roasted garlic and Gorgonzola cheese, and tender chunks of grilled chicken, shiitake mushrooms and bacon.