It's a whole different world in the dining room, the snobbier domain of steak-eating men, who outnumber the female patrons at least 3-to-1. There's no dividing wall between these two rooms, so it's still loud, and pungent cigar smoke still manages to waft over from the saloon side.
Even at its noisiest and most frenetic, though, the main dining room in the Capital Grille maintains an air of gentility and solidness that suggests the place has been around for at least a century, like its rival, the 101-year-old Savoy Grill on Ninth Street. But that's where the Capital Grille, which is fewer than four years old, proves itself to be the Holly Golightly of the Kansas City steakhouse scene. Holly wasn't a phony because she was "a real phony," Capote wrote in his 1958 novel. "She believes all this crap she believes."
In the case of the Capital Grille, its sheer theatricality -- the dark woodwork, the oil portraits of Kansas City notables (all of recent vintage, by the way), the crisp white tablecloths and heavy glassware, the silvery bread baskets, the formal service by jacket-clad waiters and waitresses -- is such brilliantly conceived phoniness that you almost yearn to believe this venue is as old and revered as New York City's Delmonico's. And like that historic restaurant, a lot of the Capital Grille's allure is its reputation for drawing power brokers and high rollers. Certainly they're the only ones who can afford to eat there -- the prices are among the highest in town. What the hell was I doing there?
Acting like a high-rolling phony, I suppose. I cringed at my bill after two meals, even though I left loaded down with enough leftovers for two more meals. There was another payoff, too: The combination of Gilded Age décor, over-the-top service, gargantuan portions, and general manager Mary Simpson's larger-than-life persona was so entertaining that I walked out feeling as if I had just watched a Broadway show.
One night, joined by Cynthia and Lorraine, the production started as melodrama when the conversation turned toward a revelation that literally brought me to tears. Soon enough, though, we were distracted by a chorus line of tantalizing appetizers -- a massive jumble of crispy calamari flash-fried with fiery hot peppers and vinegary pepperoncinis, an artfully constructed tower of steak tartare (chopped beef tenderloin filet layered with bits of egg, onion and capers), plump lobster-and-crabmeat seafood cakes as wide as silver dollars. Then we indulgently nibbled supple pink Norwegian salmon on triangles of crispy pita. Who could ask for anything more?
Lorraine, the wisecracking showgirl of that night's performance, couldn't believe the size of the starters. "How are we supposed to think about eating dinner, let alone eat it?" she wondered. And honestly, we should have stopped right there. But our server, a friendly and efficient graduate student named Bill, was such a seductive salesman that before anyone could say "The Wedge," Cynthia was eating one. A hefty salad that could easily pass as a meal, it's one-fourth of an iceberg-lettuce head drenched in a creamy blue-cheese dressing and a serious handful of crispy crumbled bacon.