Jose “Don Pepe” Fernandez and other restaurateurs smoke out customers.

Beauty Is As Beauty Does 

Jose “Don Pepe” Fernandez and other restaurateurs smoke out customers.

've always maintained that if a restaurant's food is good, no one gives a damn whether the dining room is attractive. Cases in point: the original Stroud's (1015 East 85th Street), Arthur Bryant's (1727 Brooklyn) and Cascone's Grill (20 East Fifth Street). None of them will win any interior-design awards, but the swarms of customers don't seem to notice.

On the flip side, I've never felt that the food served at the Savoy Grill (219 West 9th Street) was on a par with its spectacular early-twentieth-century dining rooms. I have friends who continue to dine there in spite of the cuisine, not because of it. And those expensively mounted restaurant flops remembered as Jules, Trattoria Luigi, Winds and the Fountain Café prove that in Kansas City, style rarely triumphs over substance -- in the dining business, anyway.

The new Succotash (see review), is a nice melding of both. Veteran restaurateur Jose "Don Pepe" Fernandez has been trying to achieve the same balance at his restaurant, El Patio (2801 Southwest Boulevard). The long-neglected building (which was, nearly a century ago, a saloon owned by the father of 1930s movie stars Wallace and Noah Beery) has been tastefully renovated with character galore. But Don Pepe continues to tinker with the menu, which started out as a mix of Mediterranean and Mexican. Then, on the advice of a business consultant, Fernandez dropped the Mexican dishes and focused exclusively on Spanish and Italian fare. Now he's brought back the Mexican dishes and dropped most of the Mediterranean offerings, except for a selection of Spanish-influenced tapas, paella and Florentine crepes.

"I've brought my wife, Sara, back into the kitchen to do the Mexican dishes," says Fernandez, who introduced his "new" menu last week. As of December 11, the actual menu hadn't been printed yet; instead, one of the restaurant's veteran waitresses announced that she was "the walking verbal menu."

"I've been here for two years now," she said. "I can tell you what we have. Tacos and burritos, chile rellenos, chicken speidini, chicken Florentine crepes."

It seems odd that on a street packed with Mexican restaurants, Fernandez has revived the same kind of dishes his competitors serve. But there's a battle for restaurant patrons these days, and only a handful of customers were in the place on a recent weeknight. That's too bad, because Fernandez's food is excellent, and the service is attentive and friendly. And where else will you get tortilla chips, salsa and bread and butter with your salads?

Restaurateurs are doing what they can to lure customers. If that means bending, altering or abandoning some ideas, so be it. That's one of the reasons why Alex Pryor, owner of Zin (1900 Main), has decided to permit smoking (cigarettes, not cigars) at his glass-block bar. He opened the place with a firm no-smoking policy.

"That decision may have been overkill," says Pryor, who will even move a table over to the bar area now for smoking patrons. "My original thought was that if you mask the ability to smell, you alter the sense of taste. But our space is big enough, the ceilings are high enough and the bar is located far enough from the dining room not to affect that. Besides, if customers want to smoke, they'll go somewhere they can."

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