Sitting out on the concrete patio of Lidia's Kansas City (101 W. 22nd St., KCMO, 816-221-3722), dipping a spoon into a bowl of a purple wild gooseberry sorbetto, I looked up to see a mass of dark clouds boiling up in the distance, suggesting a rather dreary finale to what had been a perfectly balmy night. But the clouds passed over before the cappuccino and bitter almond panna cotta appeared, so my friends and I lingered at the metal-mesh patio table, shaded by a big, gray umbrella, and listened to the gurgling of a water fountain -- a giant terra cotta urn, actually, surrounded by red geraniums -- instead of splashing raindrops. There had been other interesting sounds to enjoy earlier in the evening: the roar of a freight train rushing by; the rollicking laughter from a table of five men in polo shirts after a particularly filthy joke had been told; and, from some well-concealed stereo speaker, a muted version of "Kung Fu Fighting."
This is the joy of eating outdoors on a cool summer night: It's not quite as casual as a picnic, or as rigid as eating a formal dinner, but something happily in the middle. A picnic, for example, rarely features an attentive server lurking nearby who hurries over to refill a water glass or clear away a dirty ashtray. And it's the rare restaurant interior that can compete with the beauty of a lush park view or, in the case of Lidia's, a groovy urban landscape.
Over the past decade, Kansas City has seen a boom in the number of restaurants offering alfresco dining during the spring and summer months. And not just the fancy joints, such as Lidia's, with its sunny, juniper-lined patio just a few steps away from a fragrant herb garden.
Why, at any of the Sonic Drive-Ins or at Max's Auto Diner (8260 Wornall Road, KCMO, 816-444-6297), you can sit outside with a very inexpensive burger and a chocolate malt and watch the traffic whiz by. There's not much in the way of people-watching, though. For that you need to land an outdoor table on the patio in front of the former gas station that has housed Joe D's Wine Bar & Café (6227 Brookside Plaza, KCMO, 816-333-6116) for many years. During these lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer, this patio dining area (far preferable to the more claustrophobic dining rooms inside) is a see-and-be-seen scene, with an ever-changing cast of local celebrities sipping wine, noshing on appetizers, and furtively watching one another. (It's also a great place to overhear some really good gossip.)
Joe D's patio isn't what I would call a singles scene (unlike the rooftop terrace of O'Dowd's Little Dublin on the Plaza), but on a sultry June night, I watched an attractive friend of mine -- a legendary party girl of the 1980s who never really left the party -- work that patio so expertly, she managed to fill up her date book through July. "The nice thing about eating outside," she said, finally pulling up her chair and swirling her fork into her plate of pasta, "is that people really expect you to come up and talk to them. It's that picnic mentality."
There's not exactly a picnic mentality at the very sophisticated Classic Cup Café on the Plaza (301 W. 47th St., KCMO, 816-753-1840), especially if you're lucky enough to score one of the café tables on the thin patio strip in front of the restaurant, where you can look elegant while nibbling on Thai chicken pizza or an asparagus and brie salad, pretending not to watch the world literally pass you by on one of Kansas City's busiest pedestrian walks. (There's also the fence-enclosed deck in the rear for those less concerned with being on public display.) I've never eaten a meal there without seeing someone I knew (and more often, someone I didn't want to see) walking by, eager to lean over the railing for a chat.
Things are slightly more mellow during the breakfast hour, when there are fewer pedestrians but more car traffic. "This is just like eating in New York City," noted actor Cathy Barnett, cutting into her eggs Benedict one morning, pointing out that between the construction crew working on a retail space across the street, the tour bus stalling at the corner, and the taxi blaring its horn directly in front of us, actually having a conversation during our meal was almost a chore.
"But I love this urban life," said Barnett, who lived in Manhattan for years. "If you want quiet, go eat in Johnson County."
A few weeks earlier, I had done just that, sharing coffee and croissants with two friends at the cozy little patio outside the Panera Bread Company (5260 W. 119th St., Leawood, 913-327-1800), where we had peace and quiet and a view, if you can call it that, of the Town Center parking lot.
"If you want a view," said my Johnson County friend Randy, looking out at the expanse of asphalt, "go to the Plaza."
And I did soon after, having dinner on my favorite European-style balcony, at Figlio (209 W. 46th St., KCMO, 816-561-0505), with a bird's eye view of Mill Creek Park ("And all those sexy, hunky, shirtless jogging boys," gloated our server, with a knowing wink). Even on the muggiest, steamiest summer nights, a cool breeze wafts through this narrow porch, just big enough for a handful of tables and a skinny server or two.
It's possibly the most romantic outdoor setting in town -- especially during a glorious sunset, when sharing a bottle of wine and a plate of artichoke hearts sautéed in white wine, garlic, and basil can lead to all kinds of delicious possibilities. This is also one of the few alfresco dining experiences that can't be dampened by a raindrop or two, thanks to the shady roof that hangs over the balcony.
A few blocks away, with a different perspective on the same view, is the awning-covered wooden deck at the rear of Frondizi's (4558 Main St., KCMO, 816-931-3322). Sitting at one of the tall tables, comfortably perched on wrought-iron chairs with a pleasant view of the plumes of water shooting out from the J.C. Nichols fountain, my friend Bob and I shared an order of crispy fried calamari and zucchini in a paper "hat" and, even more decadently, a sizzlingly hot fried soft-shell crab on a bed of sweet watermelon cubes and sautéed spinach.
"This is a very big-city kind of experience," said Bob, dipping a square of sun-dried-tomato bread into a pool of olive oil. "And the deck is so much nicer than the dining room."
I'll drink to that. Frondizi's candle-lit dining room seems confining and even kind of ordinary after enjoying a meal on the breezy deck, with its expansive view of the fountain and the lush green trees at the edge of Mill Creek Park. And thanks to that green awning, it can't rain on your parade.
Across town, just steps away from the patio behind Jasper's Restaurant (1201 W. 103rd, KCMO, 941-6600), the gurgling, splashing waterfall of Indian Creek and a landscape of shady trees blot out the noisy freeway and nearby car dealerships. Sipping on a strong espresso and taking a mouthful of creamy tiramisu, you can almost pretend that this setting is a rustic town near Palermo, not a strip center in Kansas City. Sometimes big-city food, such as the sophisticated fare at Jasper's, tastes better in a landscape that evokes a small country town. That's the magic of eating outdoors: In the right alfresco setting, it's easy to imagine that you're dining anywhere else -- Italy, Paris, New York, or the moon, for that matter.
The French writer Montaigne once wrote that the art of dining well "is no slight art, the pleasure no slight pleasure." And for some reason, eating outdoors -- when the temperature has attained just the right balance of warm and cool, the stars are bright, the dinner is hot, and the wine is cool -- to paraphrase a famous jingle, doubles the pleasure, doubles the fun.
So swat the flies and pass the breadsticks. After September, it's all over for another year.