But really, the only hotel coffee shop with much savoir faire was the Westin Crown Center's Brasserie Restaurant. It was a more utilitarian dining room until 1988, when the hotel had a major makeover (which included changing the continental Top of the Crown restaurant into Benton's Chop House). Using the traditional Parisian bistro as its inspiration, the Westin installed tile floors at the entrance and added little café tables and chairs around the bar.
I can remember when this restaurant was always busy, even when the hotel wasn't fully occupied. Last year, I tried to dine there one night with a friend and was informed by a grumpy cocktail waitress that the dining room was closed for the night there wasn't much business in the hotel that week but if we wanted to eat dinner in the lounge area, she would bring out some menus.
We said no, thanks, and I swore to myself that it would be a cold day in hell before I'd return. A year later, it was a particularly frigid day in Kansas City that brought me back to the Brasserie for lunch with my friend Franklin.
He was more hesitant to dine at the restaurant than I was. "I keep hearing the food isn't very good anymore and it's too expensive," he whispered as the hostess escorted us to a table. There was a decent lunch crowd the room was nearly full and the décor seemed a little spiffier than I remembered. The tables were draped in imitation Toile de Jouy fabric, and Edith Piaf's voice was audible overhead. The closest thing to French fare on the menu, though, was the potage d'oignon gratinee.
That French onion soup was quite good, but overall, it's easier to like the Brasserie if you ignore its claim to serve "Casual French and Country Seafood" and instead treat the place as an upscale coffee shop with better than average Continental-style fare.
Franklin was seriously impressed by his bowl of hearty steak soup and a juicy cheeseburger that he claimed was one of the best he'd ever eaten. At $11, it damned well better have been.
I returned to a nearly empty Brasserie on a Thursday night for dinner with Martha and Greg. I say nearly empty because there was a waitress in the room who was practically overjoyed to see us.
"We're pretty slow on nights when the hotel isn't full," she confessed as we took our seats. "But if there's a convention in town, we can be very busy."
Martha remembered when the Brasserie always seemed busy. "Do you think it's because there are now restaurants in the Crossroads?" she asked me. After all, she noted, "Fifteen years ago, there wasn't much between Crown Center and the Hereford House on 20th Street. And Trader Vic's was still open."
Yes, Trader Vic's was a popular dining destination until the Westin closed it in 1996; now the only restaurants in the 33-year-old hotel are the high-end Benton's on the top floor and the Brasserie where the steaks are less expensive but the cuts are smaller. That didn't deter Martha from ordering a slab of excellent smoked prime rib, served with a hot, popoverlike Yorkshire pudding. "It's so 1940s!" she said and just then, a big-band version of "Cheek to Cheek" played over the sound system.
Besides its charmingly retro qualities, I admired the Brasserie's attempts at sophistication, which included a "salad of fresh mango and mint leaves" served with sliced strawberries in a martini glass. The mango chunks were rubbery, and there was just a tiny sprig of mint, but the concept was sort of elegant.
Sometimes the kitchen lives up to its delusions of grandeur, as with the superb lobster bisque, a luscious, cream-based soup so rich that even Greg, a food snob, loved it. He was less enthusiastic about the crab cakes he ordered for dinner. They looked more like two bountiful breasts of baked jumbo crab draped in a remoulade that tasted to me, anyway like the special sauce on a Big Mac. Greg noted that the crustacean D-cups were plenty crabby but heavy on the filler, too. "One minute you taste a lovely piece of moist crab, then, the next minute, a big sliver of bread pudding."
Six "Country Seafood" offerings whatever that means can each be prepared eight ways, including broiled, seared, pan-roasted, pan-braised or baked. I opted for salmon crusted with sesame and seared with ginger and garlic soy. It turned out to be a gorgeous hunk of salmon, pink and supple and exquisitely presented, just like Trader Vic's used to do it.
Afterward, Martha was eager to taste vanilla-bean ice cream served in a brandy snap basket with edible roses. She was disappointed when our waitress sheepishly informed us that the kitchen had run out of three of the seven dessert offerings. Alas, the baskets and roses were MIA that night, so we settled for a single slice of cheesecake, which was nice, but an anticlimax to an otherwise memorable meal.
The Brasserie opens each morning at 6:30 for breakfast, so Bob and I wandered in one Sunday so he could have eggs Benedict an exceptional version, served with surprisingly delicious "rustic potatoes" sautéed with caramelized onions.
"This place has come a long, long way," Bob said admiringly. "It could become the next Pam Pam Room."
Not quite. I should have taken his cue and ordered off the menu; the $12.95 breakfast bar looked showy but turned out to be underwhelming. The buffet table was generously arrayed with trays of not-so-fresh pastries; bowls of fruit and yogurt; and vats of hot scrambled eggs, bacon, biscuits and a hideous sausage gravy that was as runny as boiled milk. And as much as I love smoked salmon, the heap on this buffet didn't look so appetizing. I refused to eat it with the only bagel I could find, a sweet, raisin-stuffed version.
The java was good, though, and I sipped it between bites of a buttered croissant. C'est la vie, I thought. Forget the Brasserie's Parisian pretensions. It's an old-fashioned American hotel coffee shop.