I was a fledgling server myself when I first heard Tomlin do that monologue, and I thought it was a perfect parody, because all the people I knew working in food service were either putting themselves through college or supplementing low-paying "careers" in order to move up in the world and get the hell out of the restaurant business.
It takes a certain kind of determination — and a touch of madness — to throw caution to the wind and open one's very own little restaurant today. It might be easier to do stand-up comedy.
No one was laughing when 29-year-old Anthony Fries decided to open Azul American Bistro on a stretch of Grand that hadn't been a dining destination since the original Forum Cafeteria, just up the street, was serving up roast beef and Boston cream pie. In the last decade, the neighborhood has been somewhat bereft of restaurant life: Does anyone even remember Trago or the Vineyard, which preceded Azul on the first floor of the Borel Building at 1108 Grand? I don't.
I got turned on to Azul by my friend Bonnie, a woman who isn't prone to outbursts of enthusiasm but couldn't stop raving about the place. "The food was wonderful, and it's a great-looking space," she said. "But no one was in there. I'm worried that he's not going to make it."
I found out later that Fries was pretty worried, too — so were his parents, Vincent and Regina, who have been coming in to help out. Fries, who named the restaurant after the Spanish word for blue, was getting a little azul himself when customers still hadn't discovered his dinner-only restaurant after two months.
I was one of those foot draggers, I'm embarrassed to say. I drove by the joint a couple of times, and it didn't look like much. That snap judgment was my first mistake. Luckily, Bonnie insisted that Bob and I join her there on a Saturday night.
When we walked through the front door and entered the illuminated jewel box of a dining room, I was stunned. Fries designed the space and did a lot of the construction himself; the result is a tribute to his good taste. He has painted the 1960s-era drop ceiling black and outfitted it with two circular "dome" insets with peridot paint and dramatic lighting. The northern wall of the long, narrow dining room has been paneled with mirrors and acrylic sheets backlit by azure lights. Fries has also installed sleek blond-wood flooring and draped his tables with white vinyl and sheaths of white paper.
It would be a dazzling place even if Fries hadn't hired top-notch waitstaff and bartenders. But his people know how to shake up an icy, potent mojito or a caipirinha, the national cocktail of Brazil. And the food also is remarkably good, considering that Fries — a Rockhurst High School grad who dropped out of Rockhurst College — is a self-taught cook.
Before opening Azul, Fries had never worked in a restaurant kitchen. He had bartending and serving experience, but he didn't work his way up through the kitchen ranks, as most chefs do. So far, the 64-seat dining room hasn't been packed, but Fries insists that he's ready for the challenge. I hope he's laughing when that trial-by-fire night is over.