"This place reminds me of a bar in Lugansk," Victor said in halting English.
At first, I was willing to bet an order of Kelso's fried cannelloni bites (which reminded Victor of a deep-fried Ukrainian delicacy called chebureck) that it was the first time anyone had compared any venue in North Kansas City to a tavern in the former Soviet Union. But when I looked around the three-month-old restaurant and bar -- dark and sexy, with artfully painted walls (nicotine-stain yellow, Mediterranean red), framed European prints and hanging scarlet-glass light fixtures -- I could see that Kelso's was not your typical Midwestern joint. And by North Kansas City standards, it might truly be as exotic as a saloon in the Ukraine.
"The difference," Victor said, "is that in the Ukraine, the music would be much louder. And very bad."
At Kelso's Northtown, the piped-in music is very good and as eclectic a mix as the two-page menu -- bouncy reggae one minute, Natalie Merchant the next, and Bonnie Raitt after that. The menu ranges from gourmet pizza to roasted chicken, from a hefty slab of lasagna to a New Orleans-style muffuletta sandwich.
The eleven pizza offerings, which delighted me, are no surprise to Northland dwellers. Former professional baseball player Bill Kelso opened his first pizza joint in Liberty in 1969 (it lasted fifteen years) and a second in Metro North Mall in 1975. When his 36-year-old son, Jeff, also a retired California Angels player, decided he wanted to open a restaurant of his own (with his older sister Kelly as business partner), he made, by his own admission, a risky decision. He had passed the corner storefront at 300 Armour Road (previously occupied by a camera shop) dozens of times and thought it might be a good place for a sit-down restaurant and lounge. The popular Chappell's (a combination sports bar and casual dining restaurant) is across the street, but there are few other places to get a sit-down dinner in a predominantly commercial neighborhood.
"We knew lunch business would be very good because of all the businesses around here," Kelso says. "But we weren't sure how we would do during the night hours. It could have been a disaster, because not many people live around here. So we took baby steps at first. No advertising, no marketing."
But many diners -- myself included -- stumbled onto Kelso's simply by driving past it on the way to another restaurant. The restaurant's façade is a bank of picture windows, the view inside half-hidden by black venetian blinds. It all looks particularly alluring at night; those flashes of red neon and scarlet glass within twinkle through the slatted windows in, a friend told me later, "a very inviting way."
"We want to go there!" wailed my friends Bob and Patsy, catching a fast glimpse of those Kelso's windows on a night I was driving to a different Northland restaurant. "It looks more fun!"
Some nights are more fun than others (the place is absolutely packed with noisy, lusty singles on Friday evenings), though I've learned to love the more mellow weeknights, when the dining room is relatively quiet and many of the tables are occupied by young families with well-behaved children, a few older diners, and even some alternative couples. On one Thursday night I had dinner with my friend Lou Jane, who quickly spotted, at two different tables, a gay couple in matching cashmere sweaters eating salads and two chubby lesbians sharing a pizza.