Pawing through a shoebox, I found a trove of vintage hotel amenities: little square soaps in yellowing paper wrappers, toothbrushes embossed with some long-razed motel's name, shower caps tucked into gilded cardboard envelopes, dozens of ballpoint pens, tiny scratch pads, postcards, sewing kits in plastic boxes and even an old "sanitary" banner that had once been stretched across a Holiday Inn toilet seat.
I didn't buy the stuff -- I'm sure I have a box of my own hotel detritus stashed away on some closet shelf -- but I did go into a hotel-and-motel reverie for the rest of the day. Did someone still make coin-operated vibrating beds, I wondered? (Yes, they're manufactured by the Magic Fingers company in California.) Was it against the law to steal a Gideons Bible from a hotel room? ("No," says a spokesperson for the Nashville-based Gideons International, "but you're not supposed to take them either. We'll gladly mail you one for $8.75.") And what the hell happened to good hotel coffee shops? There hasn't been one in this city since the original Pam Pam Room at the Alameda Plaza closed in 1989 -- that Pam Pam, often the most happening dining spot in the city, had nothing in common with the lackluster venue of the same name now limping along at the Muehlebach Hotel.
Fortunately Kansas City still has a fair number of upscale hotel dining rooms: The Oak Room at the Fairmont; the Hyatt Regency's Skies and Peppercorn Duck Club; and the Westin Crown Center's Benton's Chop House. Though it's the most genteel of them all, The Raphael Restaurant may also be the least-remembered.
There are many reasons why. It's hidden on the lower level of the Raphael Hotel, on the less-touristy side of the Plaza. It's perceived as expensive and stuffy (it isn't). It's rumored to be a favorite of well-heeled geriatrics (it is). It's carved out of a space that was designed, in 1926, to be a beauty salon, and its bustling kitchen is hardly bigger than a bathroom in one of the hotel suites (originally built as apartments) upstairs.
But if the restaurant lacks the vivacity and glamour of its competitors on the right bank of Brush Creek, it makes up for that in dozens of other ways. Chef Peter Hahn's creative menu changes weekly, and the service is polished and friendly but not formal. The dark, cool dining room is perfect on a sweltering day, and it's one of the few restaurants in this neighborhood where people can actually sit and talk. If stimulating conversation is as important as food and wine, then the Raphael may be the best place in town to play salon and eat profiteroles.
But be prepared: On some nights you'll wish the people at adjoining tables weren't quite so chatty. One night I was tempted to toss a baked potato at the loudmouthed, wrinkled Republican who hammered on a nearby tabletop with his fork and announced, "If it wasn't for George W. Bush, this country would go totally Muslim!" I furiously buttered a slice of bread instead. My friend Bob didn't hear a word of the tirade because he was concentrating on his appetizer, a satiny poached pear wrapped in a pink sheath of salty prosciutto, rising up from a pool of garnet-red port-wine sauce.