Most places that lure diners with novelty acts bomb. That's because it doesn't matter how entertaining the gimmick might be -- like the common cold and romantic infatuation, it always runs its course. Sure, there was great fun to be had in the '70s, during the halcyon days of Kansas City joints such as Victoria Station (eat in a railroad car!), Baby Doe's (eat in an old mine!) and the Monastery (eat in religious quarters and be served by "monks!"). But when the gimmick got old, it was over.
Nearly thirty years ago, the old downtown Holiday Inn hotel (which later became the Americana, the Omni and, currently, the Doubletree) introduced the idea of a slowly spinning dining room with a sensational view. That concept might also have gone the way of the Magic Pan -- in fact, the room on that hotel's 28th floor hasn't budged an inch in years and isn't a restaurant anymore. But Kansas City has never put the brakes on the turntable format, which was totally eclipsed by the more glamorous and considerably more lofty Skies at the Hyatt Regency hotel.
Skies has been spinning since 1980. Veteran server John Hastings remembers that when it opened, the restaurant on the 43rd floor didn't even have a real kitchen. "We brought up everything from the kitchens down on the lower floors and served things that could be heated up, like lobster and prime rib," he says. "Now we have a full kitchen and make everything here except the bread and the pastries."
Hastings has been at Skies long enough to see it through three major renovations, including the most recent this past February. Workers gutted the round, two-tiered room, ripping out the hideous mid-'80s "industrial" décor and replacing it with a light, fresh design that's both elegant and informal. Despite the blond woodwork and mottled copper-green walls, however, the best décor is outside the windows. The room makes a full rotation every hour. It's best at dusk, when the 360-degree view encompasses the silvery curve of the Missouri River, the forlorn downtown landscape -- with more parking lots and old brick warehouses than it seems when you're driving around on street level -- and the urban neighborhoods stretching beyond Midtown out to the suburbs.
One night as my friend Marilyn sipped a Grey Goose martini, I pointed out some of my favorite landmarks: the newly restored bell tower on the old Webster School building in the Crossroads; the haunted yellow brick hulk of the long-vacant Christian Hospital peeping out from a thicket of leafy oak trees over a block west of Paseo. I was enraptured by the panorama, but Marilyn found a flaw in the restaurant's circular design. "You can't see people at other tables," she said. "It's not a see-and-be-seen restaurant."
That was perfectly fine with me but not for the more socially conscious Marilyn, who felt she was on a Worlds of Fun ride that masqueraded as a restaurant. Except for the one or two tables immediately adjacent to ours, we couldn't see anything except the view outside. I suspect she might have enjoyed our crusty crab-cake appetizer (made with snow crab instead of the lump crab promised on the menu) more if she could have caught a glimpse of one of her society chums at a nearby table.
"Who does eat here?" Marilyn wondered. "Convention visitors? Hotel guests?"
Mostly out-of-towners, it seems. But how could local diners forget this whirling wonderland, where chef Tim Pound's menu holds its own against any Plaza restaurant and the service is as polished as the shiny new flatware and artistic metal water pitchers? In fact, our server was almost too attentive the night I dined with Marilyn. He was so effervescent and perky that Marilyn said she half expected him to "burst into song or dance at any second." That night, I barely made a dent in the gargantuan slab of hot pink prime rib I'd ordered. The restaurant's first signature dish -- a Midwestern standard -- is still a best-seller, perhaps because it's a lot less complicated than, say, the sea bass Marilyn ordered but sent back because it hadn't been cooked all the way through.
On another visit, with my friends Bob and Martha, the dinner was more low-key and nearly perfect. It started when a much calmer server set out a metal box stuffed with slices of rustic bread and jagged bits of lahvosh with a tiny bowl of garlicky hummus. When I had dined with Marilyn, the bread had been accompanied by a button of butter and an oily sun-dried tomato tapenade. There's no rhyme or reason to which spread arrives at the table. "It all depends on what the kitchen wants to do that night," says manager Gretchen Gilmore.
The kitchen knew exactly what to do with a creamy, sherry-scented seafood bisque with a clump of fresh crabmeat floating on the surface. Same for the old-fashioned shrimp cocktail, in which four oversized pink prawns clung to the edge of a margarita goblet heaped with chunky, cilantro-tinged guacamole. And Skies' version of a spinach dip was certainly the fluffiest variation on this theme I've encountered. With bits of artichoke, chopped spinach and peppery cheese whipped together, the dip had a spicy kick and came with enough tortilla chips to feed the entire restaurant.
Skies limits its menu to seven regular entrées -- three beef, two seafood, a Rosemary chicken and a vegetarian pasta -- and three daily specials that require servers to deliver a confusing monologue (with an interminable list of ingredients). Do away with the performance and print up a separate specials menu, I say.
Bob and Martha sampled two of Pound's specials. Bob found the golden roasted chicken breast stuffed with prosciutto and Emmentaler cheese moist but shockingly salty. Martha was ecstatic over a rack of lamb dusted with garum masala (the Northern Indian combination of cumin, cardamom, coriander and other spices) and roasted until it was juicy and tender. I adored my breast of roasted chicken, its crisp skin fragrant with fresh rosemary, lying on a mound of thick bucatini pasta drenched in a pungent, creamy oregano pesto.
The altitude must have made me lightheaded. Otherwise, I never would have agreed to share the multilevel wedge of ice cream nonsense called the Skie High Pie. Mocha, vanilla and strawberry ice creams and white chocolate mousse were layered on a cookie crust that was harder to crack than the Rosetta stone. I took two or three bites and tossed my spoon aside, but Martha shocked me by finishing the rest, insisting that ice cream was part of a new diet she discovered in an airline magazine.
High above Kansas City, we watched downtown twinkle with electric lights as the northern skyline settled into darkness. "From this vantage point," Martha said, "Kansas City actually looks like a real city."