Starting in the 1980s, though, the first-floor space was often vacant until the early 1990s, when the infamous Dixie Belle Saloon moved north from its cramped 31st Street quarters and into the Rieger Hotel's artfully tiled lobby and dim basement. One evening, I walked down the basement stairs and saw an indecent act being performed on a popular Kansas City actor. That story is not apocryphal -- I remember it vividly because I stumbled on the last step and nearly inhaled the Marlboro Ultra Light that was dangling from my lip.
Smoking, which may soon become an illegal (if not indecent) act in Kansas City bars and restaurants, is no longer permitted in the historic Rieger Hotel building. Nor are any other salacious acts -- with one exception. Gluttony is encouraged at the two-month-old 1924 Main.
Building owners Don and Joyce Omer have turned the 88-year-old structure's dark, grimy, nicotine-stained lobby -- which still boasts the original tile floor with a florid black R encased in a wine-red shield -- into an elegant and sophisticated space. It's easy to imagine what this dining room might have looked like in 1916, when it served as both a hotel lobby and a bar fronting one of Kansas City's busiest streets, just a few blocks away from the brand-new Union Station.
Restaurant owner and chef Rob Dalzell and his servers insist that there aren't any ghosts lurking around, though I wonder whether the building's namesake, former Community State Bank president Alexander Rieger, might be a regular visitor. He did, after all, proudly put his name on top of the brick and terra-cotta building, which he had somehow lost by the Depression (when he moved out of his big house at 41st Street and Warwick and into the Bellerive Hotel). By 1928, it was the Traveler's Hotel, then the Milton (and then, later, The Elms); meanwhile, the pretty lobby morphed into a long line of smoky nightspots.
But this is one sad urban story with a happy ending. On the building's top two floors, the Omers have turned the decrepit hotel rooms into two chic apartments. (One of them was just honored by Metropolitan Home magazine.) And the boyish Dalzell, a 30-year-old chef from Fayette, Missouri, launched 1924 Main with a prix-fixe menu; a Brazilian-marble bar; many tall, handsome mirrors; and attractive young servers, including the strikingly beautiful actress Brenda Nelson.
All of that despite the fact that the words prix fixe (French for fixed price) have long struck terror into the hearts of Kansas City diners. I can think of a half-dozen restaurants that opened offering complete dinners at a set price, only to drop the concept early on because patrons just didn't get it. Dalzell is still enthusiastic about his decision, though. He says his menu, which changes weekly, is different because his $30 dinner is actually a bargain -- after all, there are five choices in each of the appetizer, dinner and dessert sections, averaging out to $10 a course.
"I offer lots of choices," he insists. "I'm not like some demanding chef insisting that my customers only eat what I want them to eat."
After eating three superb meals in his restaurant, I agree with the chef. Lately I've spent a lot more cash in far less attractive dining rooms, tolerating decidedly unimaginative food. Even my fussiest dining companions were completely charmed -- and comfortably stuffed -- by Dalzell's fare.
My friend Jim, a wry lawyer, found the menu "adventurous," the ambience "highly sophisticated" and the dining experience "extraordinary." His final words? "This shit's up!" (I did not request a translation.) His more articulate, discerning wife, Merrily, surveyed the uncrowded dining room. She was surprised, she said, that "the A-List Kansas City crowd hasn't discovered it yet." After all, they do attach themselves to hip new restaurants like well-appointed leeches.
I reminded her that the place was young and that the location was an odd one for the Mercedes-driving set. It's directly across from the distinctly unglamorous Midwest Hotel, but there are less-threatening nearby landmarks: the Hereford House, the current Dixie Belle Saloon, and Bar Natasha (where smoking has yet to be outlawed). I'd rather be surrounded by young, beautiful, poverty-stricken downtown denizens than the jet set anyway, but neither group was packing 1924 Main during my visits.
"What is, exactly, a confit?" Merrily asked as she toyed with the menu listing of "pork confit on brioche with chanterelles and roasted apples." Our server, Allen, jumped into the discussion: "It's a very delicious shredded meat." More precisely, it's an ancient technique for preserving meats through salting and cooking them in fat. But why quibble? Merrily loved the deliciously crispy pork. Jim, meanwhile, chose a salad of mild-flavored escarole, salty pancetta and a poached egg splashed with a tart Dijon vinaigrette, and I happily tore into a pile of slightly bitter radicchio drenched in a lovely Caesar dressing.
From that night's five dinner choices, Jim ordered the surprisingly thick, juicy and beautifully grilled hanger steak. Merrily, who had never dined on quail before, enjoyed the delicately flavored little bird, which Dalzell served atop a stew of lima beans, figs and pearl onions.
Although I've always detested Brussels sprouts, I was intrigued by the description of Dalzell's vegetarian dish du jour, a casserole-style "bake" of the tiny, cabbagelike heads with roasted garlic, mushrooms and onions. It was a tiny portion, and the sprouts were a shade too al dente, but I thought it was delicious. Dalzell, it turns out, grew up with a mother like mine, who didn't like to cook vegetables but occasionally opened a can of green beans. But then he worked at a restaurant in Rocheport. "My eyes were opened to the wonder of fresh vegetables," he says.
Dalzell can't afford to hire a pastry chef yet, so he makes all of the desserts himself. I can't rave enough about a lusciously tart cobbler of Jonathan apples and a scoop of homemade brown-sugar-maple ice cream, and a puddinglike, French-inspired clafouti made with pears and fresh rosemary and accompanied by a scoop of highly perfumed lavender ice cream.
A few nights later, when I dined with the lovely Sidonie, we started with soups. She chose a creamy pumpkin bisque fragrant with cinnamon, clove and ginger. "It tastes like autumn," she said, nearly swooning. I ordered a bowl of savory Thai coconut-chicken soup and found it extremely comforting. Sidonie, who said the tasteful décor was "hip, yet old-school," admired the heavy linen napkins and the flickering votives inside tiny copper pans.
"I love this place," she announced after her first bite of a plump scallop that had arrived on a bed of Southern-style grits. I was so eager to get to the dessert course that I practically inhaled my excellent slab of snapper, crusted with fresh ginger and served with spaghetti-squash fritters.
When dessert arrived -- a miniature coconut angel-food cake with chocolate-malted ice cream for her and an extra fork for me -- Sid could only quote Shakespeare: "I am amazed and know not what to say."
I felt the same way after a spectacular lunch -- well worth the $15 prix fixe -- that began with a mushroom-laden chicken soup with three tiny matzo balls. That was followed by an elegant patty-melt sandwich, loaded with caramelized onions. The only problem with those two slivers of Jonathan-apple strudel, drenched in caramel with a healthy scoop of ginger ice cream? The ice cream could have been a lot more gingery.
But hell, I wouldn't mind eating in this place every day. Anyone for a game of poker?