I don't know if there's any connection between Ophelia's, the attractive, upscale restaurant across from the historic Independence courthouse, and the more famous Ophelia who was driven mad in Shakespeare's Hamlet. But I do know this: In 2000, I was driven mad one night by the glaring incompetence of the Independence Ophelia's staff and manager, and I walked out vowing never to set foot in there again.
It took almost a decade and the fine reputation of two chefs — Marshall Roth and Aaron King — to lure me back. A friend of mine assured me that much had changed at Ophelia's over the years, particularly in the way that the restaurant was operated (it's owned by Independence lawyer and business maven Ken McClain). "You'll be very surprised by how professional the staff is now," my friend promised me.
Kathi Rohlfing — formerly of the Phillips Hotel and Room 39 — is the current general manager, so I was inclined to believe the news. She's a class act. Another friend of mine insisted that the Sunday brunch was pretty classy, too. "It's not very expensive and it's really nice, kind of glamorous."
It's not easy for me to imagine the words glamorous and Independence in the same sentence, but I was willing to give Ophelia's a second chance after so much time. I mean, yes, I'm a grudge holder of epic proportion (I'm still mad at a waitress I used to work with in the 1980s, even though I've long forgotten exactly why I'm angry with her), but after a good meal, I can be very forgiving.
I decided to return to Ophelia's in my most forgiving mood: after church. My friends Bob and Georgina were eager to sample the Sunday brunch. Snobbish Georgina, who rarely ventures as far east as Independence, couldn't stop talking about Ophelia's interior. She kept admiring the polished wood floors, the comfortable banquettes, the elegant light fixtures, the baby grand in the corner. "It's very refined," she said. "I could come back to this restaurant with some of my bridge partners!"
Bob was a little less impressed, mostly because there weren't any eggs Benedict on the buffet. There were scrambled eggs, a hearty wedge of spinach-and-ham quiche, and a man in a crisp white chef's coat making to-order omelets, but Bob's hallmark for a successful brunch is eggs Benedict.
At roughly $17 per person, I thought the fare was elaborate enough without eggs Benedict. There also were carved-to-order roast beef, fire-roasted vegetables, bacon and sausage, excellent pastries, and a first-class array of cold salads. The biscuits and gravy needed a little work, but the pretty desserts, including a wonderful bread pudding, made up for that disappointment. Besides, for an additional eight bucks, the servers were happy to note, you can have as many mimosas as you can drink.
The service was extraordinary. Georgina is legendary as a high-maintenance customer, but the staff attended to her every request. "It's a charming place," Georgina said, tucking two chocolate-chip cookies into her Chanel purse. "I can't wait to tell all my friends about it."
I cringed, thinking about how many years I'd spent telling my friends how much I hated Ophelia's. Hell, even a restaurant critic is guilty of that old industry adage: "If someone has an excellent meal in a restaurant, he or she will tell five people. If it's a disappointing meal, the same customer will tell 50."
A few nights later, I invited Truman for dinner at Ophelia's. "Where have I heard of that restaurant before?" he asked. "Oh, wait a minute. I heard about it from you!"