Tatsu's French Restaurant is and has always been that kind of restaurant, regardless of its location (a strip center in Prairie Village) and the national trend toward casual dining. Today, a fancy restaurant is the kind of place where customers still dress up to dine, even though there's no dress code -- the tenor of the dining room simply commands a certain decorum. Tatsu's evokes the glamour of the city's long-vanished and expensive restaurants, such as La Tour en Rond, Le Jardin, Le Bonne Auberge and Top of the Crown.
Some of those places served traditional French dishes. Others specialized in continental fare: part French and part Italian, with a splash of Spanish. The last holdout was the Plaza's La Mediterranee, where waiters in starched tuxedo shirts prepared flaming steak au poivre or steak Diane tableside. But it was a sign of the times (and dramatically changing tastes) when La Mediterranee left the Plaza in 1994 to take up residence in a distinctly unfashionable Overland Park strip mall. The restaurant dropped its dress code, got a little sloppy on details and lost much of its cachet. By the start of the millennium, it was au revoir, La Mediterranee.
But Tatsu's has maintained its distinctive joie de vivre for 23 years by not changing. Yes, it has expanded several times and redecorated once, but its ambience is firmly fixed. That's one of the reasons I've always liked the place so much. It prefers to think of itself as the Catherine Deneuve of the dining world rather than something younger and sexier, like Audrey Tautou or Juliette Binoche. The restaurant's chef-owner, Tatsuya "Tatsu" Arai, was trained at French restaurants in Tokyo in the classic Escoffier style: elegant but not too rich. "The richer the cooking is," Escoffier wrote, "the more speedily do the stomach and palate tire of it."
But who could tire of the braised oxtail or coquilles Saint Jacques at Tatsu's? There's a reason the restaurant has expanded over the years from a pastry shop and luncheonette to a bustling dining room serving dinner seven nights a week. The food is delicious, the service is friendly and attentive, and the décor is formal, but in a kind of inexpensively mounted, grandmotherly fashion. White tablecloths, for example, are draped over slightly shabby vinyl covers. The curtains are lace, the floral arrangements are fake and there's not always music on the sound system.
It's genteel, which is why it lures the stuffy Mission Hills crowd, including a particularly snobby doyenne who pretended not to see the saucy divorcée I was dining with one night. After we finished, my friend brazenly went over to say hello. The wealthy matron gritted her teeth, pasted on a smile and said, "Why, Loretta, I didn't even see you! Where were you sitting?"
At the very next table, actually, which made the comment even more hilarious. The tables at Tatsu's are squeezed so close together that it's possible to eavesdrop on three separate conversations at once. That's not always a pleasure, as I discovered on the night I had to endure the nonstop proselytizing of one loudmouthed reactionary, who announced to his companions, "The Internet is nothing but a left-wing conspiracy to put pornography in schools!"