The restaurant is across the street from the abandoned Jones Store, where display windows thick with dust have become billboards full of graffiti. Although I had advised her to park on the street, one of my dining companions, singer Queen Bey, had stowed her car a block south of the old Jones Store in a lot across from the Midland Theatre. I had trudged over to meet her, and then we'd walked back to Mezzaluna, which is on the first floor of the shiny, stainless steel Town Pavilion building.
"When I was a girl there was a Kresge's here," Queen said, looking right through the building and into her past. "And the smell of the chili dogs from the lunch counter was so good." That lunch counter, along with the department stores and movie palaces that once lined this stretch of Main Street, is just a memory now. And if more people don't discover Mezzaluna -- the urban outpost of restaurateur Florin Mihailescu's successful Lenexa restaurant of the same name -- it may become a memory much faster than the long-forgotten King Joy Lo.
The Tuesday night I had dinner with Queen Bey and my friend Bob, we sat at the only occupied table in the entire restaurant. The long bar did a sprinkling of business, but the attractive dining room, with little votive candles flickering at all the tables, was quiet and sad. The place is so stylish, with shiny hardwood floors and tables cloaked in white linens, seeing it nearly empty is like watching the prettiest girl at the dance sit alone.
Things weren't much better on a weekend night. While the three restaurants in the Crossroads art district several blocks to the south were packed, Mezzaluna had guests at only three tables. The food here is terrific, so what's going on? Another attractive restaurant, a PB&J creation called City Seen, did not fare well at this same location in the late 1980s -- it slipped into oblivion unseen. And the few remaining downtown hotel restaurants now have the unmistakable aroma of ennui: Unless there's a big convention, play, performance, or cultural event downtown, there's very little dinner business. A venerable restaurant, such as the nearby Italian Gardens, stays busy because its reputation for hearty, reasonably priced suppers and quick service is still its calling card. And it has valet parking, a distinct asset in downtown, where convenient parking is either nonexistent or absurdly expensive.
But Mezzaluna opened its doors three months ago with no small sense of risk. You can't help but admire the scrappy courage it took to do that -- and to create an elegant restaurant in an untrendy neighborhood occupied by casual joints, an ersatz deli or two, and a few chain operations.
Now, admittedly, the place is big on style and wonderful Italian dishes but short on charm. I saw the owner only once, and he was scowling behind the bar. The waiter on both of my visits was an attentive Romanian-born gentleman who approaches the tables with a surly wariness, as if he expects customers to be gangsters or KGB operatives. He's a pro but takes awhile to warm up.
"Is the bread made here?" I asked, tearing open a yeasty, rustic-looking roll.
"Yeah," he said, providing one of his more elaborate answers.
The young Czechoslovakian lady in the sparkly blouse who serves as greeter, busgirl, and backup waitress smiles like an angel and speaks little English, as I quickly discovered when I asked her which opera singer was crooning over the sound system.