Nick McNeil brings new life to an Oldham space.

Hip Replacement 

Nick McNeil brings new life to an Oldham space.

The Peter Allen tune "Everything Old Is New Again" would be a good theme song for The Bamboo Hut, which has survived seventy years by changing so little that it deserves to be retro-hip. In the case of the long-vacant Oldham Hotel in the River Market, a high-style makeover by designer and restaurateur Nick McNeil has turned the building's first-floor space into the essence of post-millennium, minimalist cool. In this case, something old (the hotel opened in 1917) will become startlingly new -- with Cubist decor, a monochromatic palette, translucent chairs and silvery-lavender stools by Phillipe Starke, and servers wearing Armani aprons and shirts -- when it throws open its doors this week.

But is the evolving neighborhood, which couldn't support the jazz venue/restaurant Club 427, ready for something as trend-setting as Oldham (501 Walnut Street)?

"Yes," says the forty-year-old McNeil, who says the neighborhood is finally "poised to become a very hip little enclave of shops, restaurants and clubs."

Decades ago, the area was just that, but then a few unpleasant mob bombings and lots of bad publicity chased the retail and nightclub business back to Westport and into the suburbs. Now McNeil sees that the downtown demographics have changed in a big way. "This area is filled with loft apartments, and 80 percent of them are rented by young, single, college-educated men and women with good jobs," he says. "They've moved here from other metropolitan areas."

The space will be one-part restaurant, one-part bar, and McNeil plans to open a lower-level lounge on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and make it available for parties during the week. Overseeing the kitchen will be chef Kevin Smith, the partner (and executive chef) of the former Elbow Room Restaurant in Lenexa.

"Kevin will be focusing on flavors," says McNeil, who winces slightly when asked if the food will be as minimalist as the decor. "We're going to use locally grown produce -- organic whenever we can -- and free-range chicken, grain-fed meats. Yes, the dishes will be simple in presentation. But no one will leave here hungry."

He says Oldham won't be "a hip fine-dining destination" but rather an "entertainment destination," a combination of sexy dining area, bustling lounge and a bar set above all the action, where those who want to be seen making the scene can strike poses for the diners supping one level below. McNeil plans to hire photographers on weekends to stroll around taking digital photos of customers, which he'll post on the restaurant's Web site. Calling up the same Web site, diners can make reservations or purchase bottles of wine that will already be opened, decanted and waiting at the table when they arrive for dinner.

McNeil envisions a lively clientele of "adults, age 25 and up," eating, drinking and making merry in the massive space (2,151 square feet on the ground floor alone) while "world house beat" music plays on the sound system. All of that might come as a shock to the ghosts still lingering around the 84-year-old building, which opened as a working-class hotel not far from the city's better bordellos, including the legendary Annie Chambers' place.

But if McNeil has his way, everything old won't be just new -- everything new will be Oldham.

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