And yet, a few blocks north of the Folgers plant, a restaurant called Le Fou Frog has all the components of a sexy French film -- an attractive cast, a dimly lit and seductive setting, lively music, moments of dramatic tension (Marseilles-born chef and owner Mano Rafael is notorious for banning customers who irritate him) and high comedy (the same banned customers often try to wheedle their way back in).
Even the back story has cinematic potential. Barbara, a pretty Kansas City actress in New York, gets a job as a bartender in a French restaurant owned by two volatile Corsican brothers, Mano and Jean-Roger. Mano and Barbara fall in love, but Jean-Roger dislikes Barbara. To ease the tension, Mano fires Barbara. "It was just like the Beatles," Barbara recalls. "I was Linda Eastman, and Jean-Roger's wife was Yoko." The partnership ends. Mano and Barbara get married and move to Kansas City. And that's just Act One.
Act Two might be called "The Creation of Le Fou Frog." "The translation is wrong, grammatically, but it means the crazy Frenchman, because that's the dismissive term the English use for the French -- frogs. And in our case, that crazy Frenchman is Mano," Barbara explains.
Mano's legendary temper has frightened some customers (it's the intrepid diner who sends a dish back to the kitchen), but the restaurant's fans are a loyal congregation, even those who have been excommunicated. "We always let them come back," Barbara says. "Except one," she adds cryptically.
The Rafaels installed their restaurant -- at age seven, it's now the oldest French restaurant on the Missouri side -- in a former River Market bar, The Red Front, because Mano and Barbara had an instant rapport with the building's owner, Joe Mandacina. "He looks just like our honorary grandfather," she says. To create a Parisian-style bistro, the old tavern's grubby interior was gutted and replaced with a full bar and candlelit dining room, complete with white-cloaked tables and a rotating gallery of locally painted artworks on the walls.
"This group looks like they're the paint-by-number variety," said my acerbic friend Ned with a shudder. Ned is on the verge of being banned from the restaurant (he's apparently thrown a few nasty scenes at the bar over the years), and he noted that the restaurant's manager, model-handsome Tony Glamcevski, wouldn't come to our table to greet him. "He's mad at me for some reason," Ned said, cradling a glass of Pinot Noir. "But that's one of the reasons I adore this place. It has a very louche quality, you know."
Louche? The French word meaning of questionable character? The restaurant may be located in a slightly louche neighborhood, but the cozy dining room has been the playground for Kansas City's A list since it opened. Even at the bar's rowdiest moments, there's typically a contingent of starchy Old Money in the dining room, pretending to be bohemian while pulling out Platinum American Express cards.