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Our server was even more informative. Pointing to a pair of brick arches with stucco walls that now cover the original alley doors, he said, "That's where the politicians would come in to have dinner with their girlfriends and mistresses."
Obviously, there was some monkey business going on in the more bustling days of the Zebra Room, which clearly had a lot more pizzazz in the 1930s than it does now as the forlorn Aladdin's, with its dirty carpeting, undraped tables, and overwhelming air of sadness. It's the dining room with no personality. The best way to describe the room is shabby genteel, although the long, narrow space evokes, as does the beautiful art deco architecture in the hotel's marble-and-gilt lobby, a time when downtown Kansas City had real zest and excitement.
When the hotel was built in 1925, this stretch of downtown was vibrant, with big movie theaters and vaudeville houses. There's still a tiny bit of action down here when there's a show at the Music Hall or an event at Bartle Hall, but our server said he rarely saw much of the theater crowd venture into the dining room (even though the cast from a touring show playing at the Midland Theatre was staying at the hotel).
"I've been here a year now and don't know why the theater crowd doesn't come in," he said, jotting down my appetizer request -- spinach and artichoke dip ($4.99) -- on his pad. "But they don't."
The Aladdin's appetizer selection has all the usual suspects: chicken wings, fried mozzarella sticks, chicken tenders, potato skins, and onion rings. I don't know what possessed me to choose the spinach and artichoke dip, other than the description: "spinach and artichokes topped with Monterey Jack cheese, served with tortilla chips, salsa, and sour cream."
We knew there would be trouble when the dish arrived and the little bowl holding the salsa accompaniment was far bigger than the plastic ramekin containing the very sorriest version of a spinach dip (there wasn't an artichoke to be seen in it) I've ever tasted. There was no visible cheese in the dish either, which was lukewarm, tasteless, and had the consistency of spinach soup mixed with a splash of milk. It all came with a handful of tortilla chips (because we were ravenous, we asked for more and ate them with the salsa, which tasted like the bottled variety) and a little dollop of sour cream.
When the waiter brought out the appetizer, he asked, "I guess you'll want appetizer plates, huh?"
Huh? After I gave him a withering look, he raced right out with two little plates. He also took our dinner order: a 16-ounce Porterhouse steak ($14.99) for Bob and the smoked shrimp fettuccine ($13.99) for me. The shrimp dish is one of a half-dozen entrée items that are hickory-smoked in chef J.B. Tinner's smoker (there's also a smoked chicken, brisket, and pork baby back ribs).
The dinner entrées include a choice of soup or house salad and a "fresh roll and butter." The roll and butter never materialized at our table, but the salads did, served with the dressings on the side, quivering in little plastic cups. The salads were standard issue: iceberg lettuce, a tomato wedge, fried croutons, and a couple of rings cut from a purple onion.
Dinner was far more exciting. I received a big plate of fettuccine swimming in a thick, Alfredo-style sauce, neatly topped with a chorus line of five smoked shrimp that were the color of curry and extraordinarily good.