Despite the Great (and So Persistent!) Recession, plenty of new restaurants opened in Kansas City in 2010. They came in many forms, from stylish hot-dog shop (Dog Nuvo) to the much discussed partnership between bon vivant bartender Ryan Maybee and chef Howard Hannah (The Rieger Hotel Grill and Exchange) to the return of short-order cook Jerry Naster, this time as the proprietor of Jerry's Café.
Not every new kitchen was a welcome addition: The Louisiana-influenced Fat Fish Blue in Zona Rosa has more clinkers than lagniappes. And a combination Mexican restaurant and sports bar, Mi Oficina, wasn't enticing enough to hold its own against the formidable competition on Southwest Boulevard.
But many new operations brought something new and fresh to the scene, especially these five, my favorite new restaurants of 2010.
BRGR Kitchen + Bar
4038 West 83rd Street, Prairie Village, 913-825-2747
Safely stowed away in a JoCo strip mall, BRGR Kitchen + Bar is clearly a prototype for a national gourmet-burger operation. But while prototypes often backfire (one is actually called Backfire), BRGR won't for one simple reason: It's working off a damn good blueprint.
The concept is the brainchild of three owners, including Alan Gaylin, who has a background in corporate restaurants. But don't let those ambitions put a pickle on your desire to try this upbeat, casual dining room, which puts a classy spin on the classic burger. That includes a dramatic reinvention of the Big Mac as a truly upscale creation: The "Big Mock" has all the components of the 42-year-old McDonald's double-decker. But instead of little disks of sadness, BRGR swaps in thick, juicy meat patties, Swiss cheese and its own "special sauce."
Other burger creations also are winners, especially a more stylish take on a patty melt called a Knob Hill and the hard-to-handle Pittsburger, topped with cheese, hot french fries and cold cole slaw. The service is snappy, the ambience is vivacious and the tots are truffled. And unlike its popular local rival Blanc Burgers + Bottles, BRGR serves real diner-style desserts, including cream pies.
813 West 17th Street, 816-785-3454
Heidi VanPelt-Belle, the waiflike vegan behind Füd, was once best-known for inventing a cashew-based cheese product and surviving a messy divorce from a former child actor. But these days, she's best-known — at least among those adventurous enough to sample totally vegan cuisine — for pulling off her dream project.
Vegetarian restaurants are generally perceived as well-intentioned but humorless dining experiences. (Amber Waves Café, anyone?) But VanPelt-Belle and her husband, Jerimiah Rozzo-Belle, have infused their 17th Street café with a sense of fun, color and vitality.
Because VanPelt-Belle began cooking vegan dishes in California, her culinary inspirations are primarily Mexican; the Füd menu, printed on a chalkboard near the counter, includes meatless but satisfying versions of chalupas, tacos and tostadas.
A jackfish chalupa tastes as if it were prepared with fresh seafood, but the ingredient in question is a fishy-tasting Asian delicacy called jackfruit. And that meaty note in the delicious tacos? A wild-rice mixture that VanPelt-Belle serves with a generous spoonful of her bright-orange, cashew-based "cheese."
There were some glitches in its opening summer months, when the coolest spot in the place was the frigid bathroom. And Füd isn't a large space. But even unashamed carnivores have discovered the glories of meatless dining in VanPelt-Belle's vibrant venue.
101 West 22nd Street, 816-283-3234
Grünauer is a case of the perfect culinary concept (a sophisticated Viennese restaurant) moving into a location (the former City Tavern) that fits like a glove. The dark woodwork, distressed wood floors and antique mirrors of the freighthouse space evoke the 19th-century sensibility — some might say decadence — of pre-World War I Austria.
The restaurant is operated by the Grunauer family: chef Peter Grunauer (who started his career working for the legendary disco restaurateur Regine) and his two children, Nicholas and Elizabeth. In their very European venue, the family serves food that hasn't gotten a lot of attention in Kansas City's urban core since the Salzburg Haus in the 1970s.
The menu includes all the dishes that character actor Frank Morgan rattles off, hungrily, in the 1940 movie The Shop Around the Corner: wiener schnitzel, of course; a seductive and brothy (not creamy) Hungarian goulash; a soothing fritatten soup; excellent cold salads, including cucumber; and a superb apple strudel served with plenty of schlag. The service is polished, the bartenders are handsome, and the owners are always on hand to make sure this operation is running as smoothly as a Viennese waltz.
Latin Bistro and Culinary Center
6924 North Oak Trafficway, Gladstone, 816-420-9333
Latin Bistro and Culinary Center is so far removed from Kansas City's traditional restaurant destinations — the Plaza, Westport, various gas stations — that visiting it is like going to New York City and schlepping off-off-off-Broadway to see a show.
But it's worth the trip, and it requires a theatrical metaphor, too, because the Northland storefront isn't merely a restaurant. It doubles as a performance space for the larger-than-life personality of its dimpled chef-owner, "Tito Le Chef." By day, Tito (real name: Vasilio Dios) teaches cooking classes in the exhibition kitchen in the center of the dining room. By night, he prepares dinner, and he does it with such a flamboyant technique that you might call him the Liberace of pots and pans.
Dios doesn't create lowbrow Tex-Mex dishes in either the performance kitchen or the more functional one behind the dining room. His fare leans more heavily on what he insists are ancient Mayan recipes and the cuisine of the Yucatán Peninsula. Wherever they're from, his signature dishes, such as a fantastically rich chicken mole or the slow-cooked cochinita pibil, are worthy of the spectacle.
Westport Cafe & Bar
419 Westport Road, 816-931-4740
Aaron Confessori wasn't so much inspired by the bistros and cafés that he visited in Europe as by the European-style boîtes of his neighborhood in New York City, where he lived while chopping his way through culinary school. Those NYC restaurants were just as busy late at night as they were in the mornings, and Confessori thought the concept would work perfectly in Westport, where the clientele gets hungry before and after the bars and nightclubs close their doors.
The culinary influence of the Westport Cafe & Bar is, however, distinctly Parisian. Confessori's menu is heavy on traditional bistro fare: omelets and pomme frites, mussels and (delicious) bread, a first-rate croque monsieur, supple soups and a fine vegetable ravioli. The Sunday brunch — a Gallic-influenced off-the-menu affair — is one of the best in town.
The restaurant may be the first sophisticated dining room in Westport since the days of the Prospect, Zola and Metropolis. But if those three restaurants evoked the sensibilities of their respective eras, the 1980s and '90s, the new Westport Café & Bar may be the template for the successful restaurant concept of 2011: intimate and sexy, unpretentious and still welcoming, and — most important — modestly priced.
This can be a tricky tightrope act: offering superior food at prices that customers can afford in this economy. In 2010, it was a requirement for restaurants wanting to last. Will "bold but accessible" still be the restaurant-business mantra at the end of 2011? Ask me in 12 months.