This past year, Kansas City's restaurant scene has had more ups and downs — a whole lot of downs, actually — than I can remember in more than a decade.
The year opened with such promise. One of my first reviews in 2008 was of Vinino, the super-sized Italian restaurant in the Power & Light District.
Over the following 11 months, slick new restaurants continued to open in the P&L District with great fanfare, while elsewhere around the metro, they began falling like dominoes. I wasn't surprised — Kansas City's restaurant market was saturated, so a shake-up was to be expected. But I was surprised by how many venerated venues fell by the wayside: Debbie Gold's 40 Sardines in Leawood and the Avelutto family's Il Trullo in Overland Park; the cozy MelBee's in Mission; the Bollywood Bistro in Independence; and, after a 78-year run, the iconic Jerre Ann Cafeteria & Bakery in St. Joseph. "How appropriate," one Jerre Ann fan wrote after I mourned its passing last summer, "that Jerre Ann's opened during the Great Depression and closed during the Great Recession!"
I was sorry that downtown's Mango Room closed after waiting out all the downtown-construction madness of the P&L District. The Mango Room's owner, Thelma Oliver, now works at the Blue Grotto in Brookside, a glamorous new pizza joint.
And a farewell toast to a few more personal favorites of mine: Ali and Stephanie Shirazi, who shuttered Shiraz Restaurant; Martin and Wendy Rudderforth, who made the painful decision to close Pangea Café & Market; and Patrick Quillec — wherever he is — who closed Cassis. And the owners of Vinh Hoa, in the Northland — their departure means no more of the best banh mi baguette sandwiches in town. Happily, there's a fine version of that Vietnamese sandwich among the other eclectic offerings at Happy Gillis, which opened early this year in the historic Northeast.
Not only a few legendary restaurants closed, but also a few restaurant legends passed away. The larger-than-life restaurateur Tom Macaluso died, at age 58, in his apartment on June 8. Customers either loved or hated the bombastic Tommy, but he didn't give a damn, which was a big part of his charm. Macaluso didn't suffer fools gladly, and those who rubbed him the wrong way will never forget his wrath. His loyal friends remember him for his generosity and kindness. I'll just remember his wicked wit; he was one of the funniest men in Kansas City.
Another amazingly funny restaurant personality, former Kansas City Star restaurant critic Shifra Stein, died of cancer on May 29 at age 67. Shifra had a devilish spot-on take on just about every subject. After leaving the Star, she reinvented herself as the creator of a Day Trips book series, as a talented visual artist, and as a sought-after lecturer on the art of overcoming depression — something she had battled with courage and humor.
For many in the community, the biggest shock was the untimely death of Lauren Chapin, the Star's most recent restaurant reviewer. Chapin was only 50 when she died of a brain aneurysm in early December. Her unexpected passing, a friend of mine says, was the capstone to 2008 as annus horribilis.
It was rough going for restaurateurs who tried to carry on after others had gone. Scott Warren, the longtime chef at Macaluso's namesake restaurant, took over the lease when Macaluso's closed in 2007. Warren opened his own bistro, Scotty's on 39th Street, that summer. He most assuredly had a following for his culinary skills, but by March of this year, Scotty was no longer on 39th Street, and the venue was empty. Two other enterprising restaurateurs, Leah Clayman and Brenda Carlsen, snapped up the location. The two young chefs were certainly talented — I had two great meals at their Bella Restaurant and Coffeehouse. But before I had a chance to write a review, the place was locked. An optimistic, hand-written note, taped on the door, said Bella had closed for "remodeling and rewiring," but it never re-opened. Ditto for the Spitfire Grill just up the street, which fizzled out in October.