After downtown Kansas City's once-vibrant restaurant scene fizzled in the 1960s, and before first-rate dining venues opened in the Johnson County suburbs — the archaic liquor-by-the-drink laws in Kansas stifled restaurant growth until the 1980s — the Country Club Plaza was the best place to get a great, distinctive meal in the metro.
The Spanish-style buildings on the north side of Brush Creek were irresistible to restaurateurs. Joe Gilbert and Paul Robinson opened the neighborhood's first upscale steakhouse, Plaza III, in 1963. It's the oldest restaurant still operating on the Plaza, having outlasted Gilbert and Robinson's Annie's Santa Fe, the Bristol Café & Bar and Fedora Café & Bar. It also outlived the original 1972 location of Gilbert and Robinson's casual-dining flagship, the sexy saloon and dining room called Houlihan's, named for the men's clothing store that once occupied the space.
True, Gilbert-Robinson evolved into a national dining chain, owned by corporations outside Kansas City, even as it continued to dominate the Plaza's culinary scene. But there was still a strong presence by independent operators: Don Pepe, La Mediterranée, Harry Starker's, House of Toy, the Alameda Roof and the Colony Steakhouse, to name a few. The Plaza felt like a neighborhood with Kansas City restaurants. No more.
Today, only 16 of the Plaza's 39 culinary operations are locally owned. Most of the food chains in the 15-block shopping district are the same places found in shopping malls around the United States. They're popular restaurants and probably terrific tenants, but they've made the historic Country Club Plaza — the first suburban retail center in the nation designed for shoppers who arrived in cars rather than on public transportation — an Anywhere, U.S.A., meal rather than a Kansas City experience.
Don't get us wrong. We really like some of the Plaza's chain restaurants. (Brio Tuscan Grille comes to mind.) But we wonder what the Plaza would look like if its landlord, North Carolina-based Highwoods Properties, called a moratorium on corporate chain restaurants and leased space only to local, independently owned restaurants.
So take a stroll with us through a re-imagined Country Club Plaza. On the map, we've kept the locally owned restaurants but replaced franchise operations with new tenants: some metro favorites we think belong on the Plaza.
Brio Tuscan Grille (500 Nichols Road) becomes a new Jasper's Ristorante, the upscale Italian trattoria operated by the Mirabile family for 57 years. The sprawling dining room gives chef Jasper Mirabile Jr. a lot more room to create his tableside mozzarella cheese. Or, better yet, return all of the dishes that were once prepared tableside at the original Jasper's: Caesar salad, steak Diane, cherries jubilee.
Buca di Beppo (310 West 47th Street), an imitation old-school Sicilian restaurant, becomes a real old-school Sicilian dining spot when downtown fixture Anthony's on Grand moves in.
California Pizza Kitchen (4743 Pennsylvania) is located in the space occupied for more than two decades by the original Houlihan's Old Place. We hereby return Houlihan's, now with satellites throughout the metro, to its former home but insist that all the classic 1970s dishes come back, too, including escargot, omelets and "crepe Alaska."
The Capital Grille (4740 Jefferson) is an elegant steakhouse, but many Kansas City residents have never gotten over losing the original Bristol (and its gorgeous dome), dismissed in 1995 to make way for a vulgar, gaudy seafood shack called Jules. (It promptly failed, making way for Capital Grille.) We bring the Bristol — stained-glass dome, drop biscuits and all — back to Jefferson Street from its Leawood location.
The Cheesecake Factory (4701 Wyandotte) is in the space once occupied by a department store. Because the décor of the two-story dining venue is already wildly dramatic, why not give it an exotic menu, too? Enter La Bodega, with its collection of Spanish and Moroccan dishes.