I haven't seen this happening much in the inner city yet, though a few 19th-century homes on the West Side have been razed to build sleek condo developments. A more interesting comparison might be made between the Leawood tear-down and an unassuming Southwest Boulevard restaurant once known as California Taqueria. What happened to California Taqueria wasn't technically a demolition but might as well have been — the venue was drastically remodeled both inside and out, to the extent that it's hard to remember what the old place looked like. On Southwest Boulevard, as in Leawood, the buildings were replaced by palatial quarters. In fact, Café Sevilla, the restaurant that replaced the old taqueria, was as large and attractive as a home in Hallbrook.
Inside what's now a Moorish-meets-Disneyland structure at 700 Southwest Boulevard are polished wooden floors, built-in wine cabinets, two floors of dining space, a private banquet room, a strikingly attractive bar, and a stainless-steel kitchen that the legendary chef Jose "Don Pepe" Fernandez called the finest he had ever worked in.
After a triumphant opening in late 2005, Café Sevilla briefly closed a year later. Don Pepe had left the kitchen and taken his signature dishes with him. Gone were the paella, the grilled scallops in saffron cream sauce, the shrimp sautéed in garlic and olive oil. The owners decided to change the name of the place to Casa Grande and offer more traditional Mexican and Mexican-American fare.
The culinary shift made sense because the livelier (and noisier) La Bodega right across the Boulevard was serving a wider selection of the same kind of Spanish tapas that Don Pepe was offering. The biggest difference was that Café Sevilla seemed more formal than the casual, unpretentious La Bodega.
That illusion of formality has been dropped at Casa Grande, though the dining room retains the brick archways, the elegant light fixtures, the glass-topped tables and the red cloth napkins. A friend insists that the place looks like an upscale restaurant in Mexico City, even if the menu is, he grudgingly admits, comparable to every other Mexican restaurant on Southwest Boulevard.
"But," he says, "I prefer Casa Grande because you never know when something unexpected is going to happen there."
I wondered what the hell he meant by that.
I found out a few nights later, when Bob and Marilyn and I walked through the front door and right into the middle of a concert performed by a dozen or so musicians playing brass instruments. The bar and dining room were so packed that we couldn't find a table, so we gave up and walked over to La Bodega. A couple of weeks later, I was back at Casa Grande, this time dining with Franklin and Trixie in a very quiet, nearly deserted dining room, when we noticed a nerdy-looking guy sitting near the front door fiddling with his laptop. "I think he's downloading music," Franklin whispered. Suddenly, sizzling Latin music echoed through the room, and a group of tango enthusiasts who'd been sitting at the bar hopped off their chairs and started dancing. On the dance floor, even the nerdy guy looked like Maksim Chmerkovskiy.