The time? 7 on a Friday night. The place? Aladdin's Restaurant in the Holiday Inn Citi Centre. There, the dining room was empty, except for the table I shared with my dining companion, who was quite happy with the solitude: "It's like having our own private dining room," he said.
But it wasn't exactly private. If I turned my head in one direction, I could see Elton John. In another direction, I came face to face with Ricky Martin. And behind me was billionaire Bill Gates. Not in the flesh, unfortunately, but larger-than-life on one of the half-dozen TV screens mounted throughout the dimly lit dining room. The images are doubled, thanks to the shiny mirrors mounted on old wooden columns in the center of the room. From my seat, I could look away from the table and see ESPN out of one eye and CNN out of the other. All played simultaneously and silently; the restaurant's sound system was reserved for Top 40 rock songs performed a shade too loud by Whitney, Jewel, and Mariah.
When the young waiter, formally attired in a starched white shirt and black pants, came over with two plastic-covered menus, my friend Bob said, "There are so many TVs in here. Is this place also a sports bar?"
"That hasn't been defined for me yet," said the server. "I don't know if we're a sports bar yet."
That was not the first unanswered question of the night concerning the many mysteries of the Aladdin Restaurant, nor was it the last. Before setting out for dinner, I called the hotel restaurant at 5 that night to ask a few questions. Were reservations necessary? No. Was there free parking? No.
"There's parking across the street," said the cheerful voice at the other end of the line. "It costs $3 an hour."
And was there a special dish that evening?
"There will be, but we haven't come up with it yet," the voice said.
With those kind of reassurances, why should I have been surprised that the dining room was nearly empty at our arrival? Sure, at 7 p.m. there was one other couple in the room, but the two people soon finished their dinner and quickly vanished. Soon enough, it was just me, Bob, two waiters, and the TV sets. Where was everyone else?
Admittedly, there wasn't much action on the streets of downtown that night. No conventioneers prowling around with laminated nametags on their jackets. No theatergoers streaming toward the Music Hall. In fact, we were able to easily find a free parking spot on the street a block or so from the Holiday Inn, passing the far more active Doubletree Hotel on the way.
Once we were seated at our little table in Aladdin's, I looked at the menu cover, which features the image of a color postcard from 1932, when this hotel was the then-7-year-old Aladdin Hotel, billing itself as "the hotel with a personality!" In those days, the apartment hotel was one of the snazziest operations in the "up-to-date" Kansas City, complete with 265 rooms, most boasting individual kitchenettes, an open-air rooftop garden, and a lower-level basement dining room called the Zebra Room, which could be entered through a door off the dark alley between the hotel and the long-razed Gayety Theater.
"It was a dark place, more like a bar," recalls veteran radio personality Walt Bodine. "A lot of the local politicians would hang out there. I don't remember it ever being renowned for its food."