That paragraph sounds very now, but it was written 33 years ago by columnist Jerry Plantz for a long-forgotten publication called Kansas City Happenings. Kansas City's urban core was supposedly on the verge of a renaissance in 1974, waiting for the opening of the shiny new Bartle Hall Convention Center. Back then, Bartle Hall was supposed to save downtown. Hopes were high for all the tourists and convention dollars the new facility would bring in. Plantz wrote that as Bartle Hall rose, so did "the spirits of the owners of restaurants, managers of hotels, clerks in downtown stores, dressmakers, hairstylists and barbers ... the cocktail waitress and waiter."
The similarity wasn't lost on me as I thought of a new generation of restaurant owners, hotel managers, store clerks and servers who have their hopes pinned to the Sprint Arena and the Power & Light District to "save" downtown Kansas City.
The tastefully refurbished Holiday Inn Aladdin Hotel reopened in May after yet another period of "opening, closing, opening." Before Memphis-based Wright Investment Properties took over the badly aging 16-story hotel in 2006, it had been shuttered for three years. Previously, as the Holiday Inn Citi Centre, it had grown shockingly dumpy, and its restaurant, the Zebra Room, was a joke: bad décor, hideous food, insufferable service. The only good thing about this third-rate dining room was its name, which harkened back to a glamorous nightspot — also called the Zebra Room — that had occupied one-third of the present-day space in the 1920s and '30s.
In the years before and after the Great Depression, the Zebra Room was a sexy little hideaway where power brokers could have a secluded cocktail with their girlfriends. In those days, there was a doorway off the alley where the bigwigs could sneak in without passing through the lobby.
The amazing thing is that the 82-year-old Aladdin Hotel survived.
The first night I went to dine in the new Zebra Room restaurant, Bob, Fred and Lillis and I parked in the municipal garage across the street. As we walked toward the front door of the Aladdin, Lillis said, "You know, even when I was a young woman in the 1950s, this hotel was already sort of outre. The only real nice hotel downtown was the Muehlebach."
This new Zebra Room bears absolutely no resemblance to the blasé beanery of the same name from the pathetic Citi Centre era. The formerly dowdy Aladdin now has an imaginative, snazzy interior and, thanks to 28-year-old chef Sam Cross, the first excellent dining room the hotel has had in several decades.
It's not as sophisticated as the Chophouse in the neighboring Hotel Phillips, but this isn't a dinner-only restaurant. The two-month-old Zebra Room serves breakfast, lunch and dinner in a stylish but casual space. The uncloaked tables are topped with zebrawood veneer and set with red napkins and big china chargers done in a black-and-white motif. The walls are pale-gray, and the chairs and banquettes are upholstered in vivid red.
"It just borders on being vulgar," Lillis said. She sipped on a predinner cocktail while Fred slathered a piece of bread with chilled ricotta cheese drizzled with balsamic syrup.
"Even Diana Vreeland said that a little vulgarity can be a good thing," I reminded her as I looked over the menu.
Wisely, Cross has kept his dinner menu tight and unfussy: four appetizers, a few salad choices, a daily soup and 10 hearty entrées with a predictable array of steaks, chops, pasta and salmon. At the same time, he and his talented kitchen crew (including creative young chefs Zach Churchill and Brandon Crain) have put a lot of pizzazz in the preparation. Lillis and I shared the most expensive entrée: a 12-ounce, pepper-crusted Kansas City strip that was perfectly grilled, lusciously tender, modestly draped in a rich pinot noir jus, and sided with a potato gratin layered with molten smoked mozzarella. Fussy Fred gave thumbs up to a firm slab of salmon, lightly glazed with a spicy Dijon and scattered with dark-amber roasted onions.
Bob was less entranced by his dinner, the one vegetarian option on the menu — a doughy imported Italian pasta made with artichokes and tossed with tomatoes, asparagus, capers and artichoke hearts. He thought the dish was too bland and the leaf-shaped pasta too heavy. (Cross plans to switch to a lighter noodle when the menu changes later this summer.) I thought it was just great.
We later shared an excellent pot of French-press coffee (with a little hourglass timer thoughtfully provided) and a piece of dense, chocolate-drizzled cheesecake.
But it was a Thursday night, and we were the only diners in the restaurant. "It's kind of lonely in here," Fred said. Cross told me later that the hotel hasn't begun promoting the Zebra Room yet; most of the customers are hotel guests and conventioneers. I made sure to leave our charming waiter a nice tip — he can't wait forever for this place to build a clientele.
The Zebra Room was a lot busier a week later when I returned for lunch with my friend Ned (who's already devoted to the Aladdin's mezzanine-level Martini Loft). The dining room was filled with convention attendees wearing name tags. Ned immediately recognized the hostess, Betty — a veteran from the Hyatt's Peppercorn Duck Club. "This is a good restaurant," she whispered to us. "A great staff."
I wouldn't go that far. Our waiter was friendly but poorly trained, to put it mildly. "He's trying really hard," Ned said sympathetically. "They probably have a hard time getting staff here."
And he was impressed by the look of the dining room. "I remember when it was called Carnegie's and had singing waiters. It was another concept that didn't work."
The food made up for the scatterbrained server. The crab cakes were excellent, and I absolutely loved Sam Cross' "Mac & Cheese" variation on risotto, blending the creamy rice with chopped asparagus, bits of bacon and tomatoes and blanketing the top with a bubbling layer of Port Salut, parmesan and mozzarella cheeses.
Ned wished that he'd ordered that instead of his own lunch — a bowl of ropy noodles smothered in a meaty, oregano-heavy Bolognese sauce. But the French-press coffee and a delectable strawberry tart improved his mood. "This is a homemade dessert," he raved. "One of the best things I've had in months."
It's not homemade. None of the Zebra Room desserts are made in Cross' kitchen, but these layers of pastry, cream and mascarpone cheese were lovely nonetheless. "I'd come back just for that dessert," Ned said.
"You better," I warned him. New restaurants can't wait for another pie-in-the-sky promise of yet another downtown "renaissance." The Zebra Room needs customers now.