"Richard liked this table because he could see everyone as they came in and he could hold court," says my friend Marilyn, who knew Stern well. "And he was never too far from a chilled martini." Marilyn prefers Table 31 as well. Though it's a shade too close to the bar, which can get pretty smoky on a weekend night, it's certainly not too far away from Damon, the handsome, dark-haired bartender.
Many of Kansas City's larger-than-life personalities have been equally possessive of downtown's 99-year-old Savoy Grill, which is not quite as old as the 1888 hotel that contains it. The late "Flo" Stevens, founder of the Patricia Stevens Fashion College empire, insisted on the Truman booth, where she would cherish a Pall Mall and a Scotch before slicing into a steak au poivre.
Little has changed in the Grill's celebrated front room, which still boasts its original Edward Holslag murals, distinctive gold-and-green art-nouveau glass windows and a carved oak bar dating back to the McKinley administration. So it's no surprise that cigarette smoking is as much a tradition here as the servers' crisp white jackets and their numbered, silvery pins.
Numbers 1 and 2 are long-retired, though. The former belonged to Leiman Childs, who served thick steaks and baked potatoes in the room from 1950 to 1975; the latter was worn by the late Bill Bass, who retired in 1972 after 52 years of service.
The numbers are much higher now. The server who fussed over Marilyn the night we went out was Number 28, the plump and effusive Curtis Hough, a six-year veteran of the restaurant. He immediately handed Marilyn (but not me, alas) a printed invitation to his upcoming birthday party. "I'm going to have celebrities there!" he gushed. "Bette, Judy and Liza!"
"Isn't Judy Garland dead?" I asked, unfolding a starched napkin into my lap.
"She's coming back! Just for my party," giggled Curtis, proving that at the Savoy, the serving staff has as much celebrity cachet as the patrons. That tradition goes back to the legendary Mr. Childs -- Server Number 1 -- who had to leave town quite quickly, according to the hotel's owner, Don Lee. "He had a huge customer following," Lee says. But one night domestic problems caught up with him and, Lee says, Childs "slipped out the back door."
What hasn't been so legendary in recent years is the restaurant's food. Lately I've heard it knocked more often than praised; the most typical complaints are that it's "inconsistent and too expensive." Expensive? Perhaps -- the prices are comparable to those at the Capital Grille, though unlike that Plaza establishment, the Savoy includes salads and potatoes in its dinner prices. But inconsistent?
I decided to investigate and came to this conclusion: The food is still delicious, but the kitchen can be uneven in odd little ways. One Sunday, the kitchen ran out of hot yeast rolls, the ingredients for a Caesar salad and the Rum Baba Flambe before 8 p.m. And diners should make a point of telling their servers in advance if they have theater tickets, because nothing comes out of the kitchen promptly, and the lag between salad and entrée can be maddening.