The Grand Street Café stays in style.

A Grand Affair 

The Grand Street Café stays in style.

In the next few months, Mayor Kay Barnes' handpicked group of business executives and politicians will try to figure out the exact definition of downtown Kansas City so they can begin fixing it up. They may actually include the Country Club Plaza in their definition. (After all, Barnes likes to compare Kansas City to Paris; that city's core, she says, stretches almost the same length as the distance between the Missouri River and the Plaza, with Crown Center in between.) But as I've often said, the reason there's no life in downtown Kansas City is that the Plaza is downtown Kansas City; like any good downtown, the Plaza is dense with hotels, department stores, restaurants, movie theaters and office towers. And proving that history continues to repeat itself, the Plaza -- like downtown in its heyday -- continues to expand south and west, but not east. The eastern border of the 78-year-old Plaza is still Main Street, with little shopping or eating beyond the Winstead's spire.

That's what makes the success of the Grand Street Café so remarkable. Not only did it open on the less fashionable side of the Plaza but it's also one of the city's least visible restaurants. Tourists who don't know that it's tucked into the first floor of an unassuming office building (one practically hidden by the flashy and fabulous Winstead's) have been known to drive around the block several times before catching a glimpse of the demure Grand Street sign pointing to a back parking lot.

Before co-owners Bill Crooks and Paul Khoury opened their stylish restaurant in 1991, friends said they were taking a wild gamble. Crooks admits they had their doubts. The development they thought they were moving into had a very different concept. "The blueprints we first saw had a Nordstrom's department store in the plans and a big fountain where the parking lot is now," says Crooks. "But those things never manifested."

It didn't matter, because Grand Street caught on fast, thanks to a sophisticated menu and designer Hal Swanson's interior, which combined earthy tones, oversized botanical-print wallpaper and fabric, jagged-edged panels of glass and willow branches that reached up toward ductwork splattered with leafy, impressionistic strokes of autumn colors. The setting evokes different responses from diners. One friend of mine likens it to a soothing, leafy glade; another describes it as "the jangled chaos of insane Mrs. Venable's lush garden in Suddenly Last Summer." And then there's my beautiful friend Carmen, who likes to show off her most handsome new boyfriends in the restaurant's see-and-be-seen dining room. "It's looking dated," she says. "It needs a new décor."

There's a rumor (I even heard it from a Grand Street waitress) that Crooks and Khoury are working on a remodeling plan, but Crooks adamantly denies it. "What would we do to change it?" he says. "The décor is part of what we are. Our customers love the way it looks. Other than replacing fabric and paper occasionally, we're keeping it just as it is."

The menu, on the other hand, gets frequent makeovers from charismatic executive chef Michael Peterson. The culinary facelift taking place this week, for example, eliminates the popular Thai chicken pizza and bone-in rib eye and introduces a flatbread topped with chile-seared tenderloin and a grilled Kansas City strip on foie gras-baked potatoes.

Some of my favorite dishes from earlier menus managed to make the latest cut, thank heaven, including many of the appetizers I frequently order as dinner fare while sitting at the copper-covered bar. That's a great spot for a restaurant voyeur, with terrific views of the open kitchen, the lively dining room and the attractive serving staff, who unwittingly drop gossipy tidbits about their customers as they pick up goblets of wine and cocktails from the bar.

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