The Classic Cup looks a little cracked.

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The Classic Cup looks a little cracked.

Officially, there's no such thing as dinner theater on the Country Club Plaza. But anyone lucky enough to score a sidewalk table at the Classic Cup Café can sit back and enjoy a never-ending show. The other night, my friend Bob and I barely exchanged a word through an entire meal, we were so mesmerized watching a series of real-life dramas.

First there was a drunk attempting to parallel park (comical and frightening), then a beautiful young couple walking a dog and furiously squabbling ... in French! We recognized a waiter on his way home from work at another restaurant, and we thought we knew the startlingly tall guy who passed by before we both had the same epiphany: He looked like Big Bird on Sesame Street. I couldn't take my eyes away from the parade of fashions -- good, bad and ugly -- modeled by the young, the restless and the deranged.

I haven't exactly been a fashion plate myself whenever I've eaten at the Classic Cup. But it's always seemed to me that dressing up isn't required there. No one really considers the Cup a fancy restaurant, despite the white linen covering the indoor tables, the excellent wine list and the modest delusions of grandeur on the menu. I remember the original Classic Cup in Westport, which closed in 2001 after a 25-year run, as slightly snootier than the Plaza venue. (Maybe that's because it was right next to a classical-music store.)

Two decades ago, that first Classic Cup (which had evolved from a tiny place that sold only packaged coffee, mugs and candies) attracted an interesting blend of attractive young bohemians and well-appointed society types. That's pretty much the same crowd that haunts the 15-year-old Plaza location today. The night I was sitting in the outdoor dining area that faces 47th Street, the narrow space was occupied by an uptight Leawood couple; a quartet of willowy, chain-smoking gay boys; and a fiftyish hippie couple, one of them drenched in patchouli oil.

"That woman is wearing the stinkiest perfume," Bob whispered across the table. "Thank goodness we're sitting outside, or I couldn't breathe."

We were tearing apart a plate of the restaurant's signature bread, a soft, braided loaf of rye, whole wheat and white doughs. It's a relic of the original Cup; the restaurant's co-founder, Charlene Welling (who created the Classic Cup restaurants with her former husband, Dan; they sold the Plaza location in 1993) says the bread nearly didn't make it to the Plaza venue. But customers overwhelmingly requested it, so it stayed.

Customer loyalty is one of the reasons that this restaurant -- one of the very few independents left on the Plaza -- remains so popular. I have friends who get downright defensive if I even mildly criticize the place. "It's a Kansas City institution," said one, shaking her little fist in my face. "Like the American Royal and ... Walt Bodine!"

A restaurant can't buy that kind of devotion. I admire this unflagging loyalty, but I think it has as much to do with the Cup's success as the charming outdoor deck and the bistro tables facing the sidewalk. The food is somewhat less magical. Over the past year, I've had some terrific meals in this restaurant and some disappointing clunkers.

There's no reason the kitchen should be inconsistent; chef Michael Turner has overseen it for years. Still, the less complicated dishes -- salads, steaks, a lovely rack of lamb -- are the true classics on this menu. That doesn't mean I don't occasionally veer off and order something absurdly extravagant, such as the baked gnocchi appetizer tossed with chopped walnuts and a delicate gorgonzola cream sauce. The gnocchi clearly isn't homemade, but that doesn't matter, because the luscious sauce outclasses the prefab dumplings and it's just as good sopped up with a hunk of that marbly bread.

The night we dined near the hippie couple, I decided to try the restaurant's "famous" (according to our server, anyway) house soup, a green-chili-and-chicken concoction that was disappointingly light on both of those ingredients. It wasn't particularly spicy, and I'd seen more meat in a can of Campbell's. Bob enjoyed his salad, though, regardless of the oddly giant carrot slices (one was nearly coaster-sized) mixed with the greens. "Farmers used to say that carrots this big are only good for horses," he huffed.

It's the Cup's supposedly classic dishes that don't always live up to their former glory. I like the Thai chicken pizza that's been on the menu forever, but Welling once confessed to me that she had adapted the concept from the original California Pizza Kitchen, whose version was more about peanut sauce than heat. The Classic Cup's is better, but over the past few years it has grown more sweet than spicy.

My number one complaint is that I've had too many dinners served lukewarm -- and I can tell you from personal experience, a plate of tepid wild-mushroom risotto gets gummy really fast. The Classic Cup's is too salty, too.

"There are glimpses of creativity in the menu," insisted my friend David, who only nibbled on his chicken with the unappealingly brownish risotto. "But something's lost in the translation."

Bob and Carol, though, absolutely loved the dinners they ordered on a second night. Carol had a superb hunk of pan-seared salmon stuffed with snow crab, and Bob raved about that night's surf-and-turf special, a sliced flatiron steak with three grilled shrimp, a potato cake and grilled asparagus. Bob's was hot; Carol's was lukewarm. But both were visually attractive. (At the risk of sounding nitpicky, though, why couldn't a server bring lemon wedges with the salmon instead of an irrelevant skinny lemon slice, the kind used as an iced-tea garnish? Is the restaurant that stingy, or is the server that lazy?)

At our server's suggestion, I chose the pork chop with a Southern Comfort glaze. It turned out to be fat and juicy, glistening with the intoxicating amber sheen. I practically gnawed on the bone to get every last morsel of meat.

And David's sour opinion of the Classic Cup turned around when dessert arrived. He found solace in the restaurant's variation of trifle, served in something that looked like a jelly glass. Like the traditional British dish, this version had custard, fresh fruit and cake crammed into the glass. It was "phenomenal," David admitted. Bob was thrilled that the chocolate fudge cake he'd ordered was served not warm, as promised, but downright steamy. He wouldn't share a bite, so I wound up eating half of Carol's moist carrot cake instead.

Our happy ending was no surprise to me. The restaurant consistently outclasses its Plaza competition in the sweets department. On more than one occasion, after enduring some culinary catastrophe, I've rewarded myself with a cool crème brûlée or an order of bread pudding with caramel sauce. By that point in the evening, the entertainment isn't on the sidewalk but, finally, on the plate.


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