You can't have too many concepts. Just ask Forbes Cross, who has opened so many different restaurant concepts over the past two decades that I can't even remember all of them.
The best known of those was probably Michael Forbes Grill, the clubby Waldo pub that was his first great success, in 1985. Between the opening of that restaurant — which closed in 1999 — and his last venture in Lee's Summit, Cross has operated seafood grills, pan-Asian bistros, steak joints, Mexican cantinas, and even a short-lived revival of the Michael Forbes Grill in Johnson County.
Working for legendary restaurateurs Paul Robinson and Joe Gilbert, Cross learned early that the restaurant business is a gamble. And he knows that the most important hedges against failure are the simplest: good food, friendly service, moderate price points. He has adhered to these tenets even when his ideas have been too far-reaching (like Japengo, his expensively mounted Pacific Rim restaurant on the Country Club Plaza). Better ideas than that can still flop, but sometimes the combination of location, concept and staff is so winning that a dining operation just takes off.
Cross hopes for that kind of luck with his latest creation, the month-old Hickok's Bar & Grill, in the River Market. It does have some impressive components: a sunny and comfortable space, a talented chef and a very appealing menu. But is Hickok's in the right space at the right time?
Dinner traffic has always been a problem for restaurants in the River Market, which is why some attractive venues that once held ambitious restaurants — River Market Brewing Company and Oldham come to mind — continue to sit empty and unleased.
"I think this neighborhood is on the edge of a real revival," Cross says, with all the optimism you'd expect. "We just need a few more restaurants to come in and create a potent destination. The energy is already there."
Hickok's Bar & Grill is the first time that Cross has attempted to create a restaurant in downtown Kansas City. The urban locale is actually what attracted him to the old building in the first place. "It's a gorgeous building in a great neighborhood," Cross says. The building, at the corner of Fifth Street and Walnut, previously housed a failed Tex-Mex restaurant, Dos Hombres, so Cross knew that he would have to offer something seriously different. His original plan was a saloon that served both Mexican and upscale bar food. That was before a familiar name answered his Craigslist post for a chef.
"I was stunned when I saw that Michael Peterson had responded to the ad," Cross says. "We had never worked together before, but I'd known of him and his talents for years. I was never so happy to see that someone was out of work."
Another Gilbert-Robinson veteran, Peterson made his name at Grand Street Café and has had a tumultuous career since leaving that venue, working in nearly as many restaurants as his new boss has opened and closed. But Cross says he knew that Peterson was the right fit for his new venture. Cross immediately gave Peterson carte blanche to change the menu that he had designed for Hickok's. "I told him I wanted burgers, tacos and dinner entrees, but he could pretty much do what he wanted."
He did, quickly tossing out some of Cross' ideas (deep-fried pickles, for example) and revising others. "I knew I wanted a lot of interesting, creative burgers and fresh, hand-cut fries," Cross says. "Michael really delivered."
Cross wasn't sure what to make of the Wild Bill's fried burger — an 8-ounce Angus patty dipped in a Boulevard-beer batter and deep-fried — but patrons love it. My friend Bob certainly did when he tried it. He went on about the crispy tempura-light crust, the tangy jalapeño-cheese sauce and the mound of frizzy fried onions that topped the burger. He thought it was weird and delicious at once. And at nearly 10 bucks, not a beefy bargain.