Fans of restaurateur Steve Cole's elegant boîte would argue that the place was as timeless in its individual style as, say, a Chanel suit or a Rolls Royce. And when it opened in 1984, it certainly was the ne plus ultra of Kansas City dining, thanks to Cole's obsessive attention to details. "Steve would make the linen companies come back and pick up improperly pressed table linens," recalls Mary Simpson, who managed the restaurant for ten years. "He is a perfectionist, and that not only encompassed the food and service but the fresh flowers on the table, the amount of starch in the servers' aprons and the manicured flowers in the boxes outside the restaurant."
That drive for perfection wasn't lost on Simpson -- now the managing partner at the Capital Grille -- who says, "I learned how to run a restaurant from Steve Cole. I'm still a stickler for perfectly starched aprons."
At a time when fancy restaurants were falling out of favor in the "casual dining" revolution (where trained, polished service and keen fastidiousness were banished by corporate managers as a cost-saving measure), Cole's stubborn resistance to informality was deliciously rebellious. An even bigger surprise was that he daringly opened his elegant restaurant in a gritty neighborhood instead of on the Country Club Plaza.
Café Allegro's success revitalized 39th Street and encouraged other restaurants, coffee houses and retail shops to follow his lead. But Allegro's regular customers noticed something the past few years: the food and the service remained consistent, but Cole's personality was missing.
"He wasn't there as often," says one longtime patron. "A lot of the restaurant's joie de vivre was gone."
After selling Café Allegro to businessman Jack Hanrahan last week, Cole put his best spin on the deal. "I'm going to spend more time with my wife and little girl and try to figure out what I want to do when I grow up," the 53-year-old Cole told me. But he's clearly a man ready for a different set of challenges. He's already won Zagat and Wine Spectator honors, served as president of the Missouri Restaurant Association and been named Restaurateur of the Year. What next? "I'd like to get out of the restaurant business," Cole said. "But who knows what's down the road?"
Not a roadhouse, I suspect. Not for Cole or for Hanrahan, who plans to turn the old Café Allegro into a bistro that blends food, wine and live music, he says, "like places I've visited in San Francisco, New York and Dallas."
Yes, diners will be able to light up a cig in his new, definitely unfancy restaurant, Hanrahan says, but there won't be fried chicken. For that, you do have to hit the road.