Victor Fontana's legendary style is alive and well at Frankie's on the Plaza

Victor Victorious 

Victor Fontana's legendary style is alive and well at Frankie's on the Plaza

Long before Victor Fontana became Kansas City's first celebrity restaurateur, he was a somebody. As far back as the early 1960s, female workers at downtown's old Unitog factory would see the tall, hazel-eyed Victor at Frank's Place -- his father's little restaurant and saloon at 18th and Cherry -- and say to each other, "He looks like a movie star."

Evelyn Bond, who took her lunch breaks at Frank's Place forty years ago, loved watching Victor "kibitzing with the customers" and remembers him as "so handsome and all show."

By 1976, when Fontana opened Fanny's, the glittering disco and restaurant in Westport, he was "a star, the luminary of Kansas City nightlife," recalls my friend Ned, who enjoyed several memorable meals there. "It was an exclusive scene, where diners dressed up and the service was very formal, with rolling carts where the waiters prepared Caesar salads tableside, and flambé dishes," he says. "And the dining room was surrounded by these thick, glass walls that looked out on a dance floor. This was during the very apex of disco, so it was definitely the place to be."

"It all started at Fanny's," says Victor, laughing as he sits at a table in his newest restaurant, Frankie's on the Plaza. "The world started there, I think."

Fontana has seen the Kansas City restaurant community change dramatically over the past 25 years. Continental dining and formal service have fallen out of favor, and hardly any restaurants still offer a dance floor. Frankie's does, although "so few people actually use it to dance," Fontana says. The combo he hires to play on Friday and Saturday nights is "still something of an experiment," he adds. "We're trying things out."

One of the biggest changes Fontana has witnessed happened right there on the Country Club Plaza. "Suddenly it seemed like all the independent restaurateurs were gone and it was all big chain operations," he says. "But I think the independent restaurant owner is going to come back."

It will if Fontana has anything to say about it. He's more than a survivor of restaurants and nightclubs -- he's a survivor of life's tough blows, including his son Frank's accidental death in 1996 and his own recent brush with mortality. A longtime smoker, Fontana was diagnosed with lung cancer this year but was back at work soon after successful surgery. "It was a miracle," he says. "The doctors got everything. I don't have to go through chemotherapy." He stopped smoking, too.

Doctors advised Victor to take six weeks off, but he was back after a week. It was the same story after he sold his last restaurant, Veco's, a few years ago. "I got bored not working," he says. "My whole life, my whole social life has been the restaurant business."

If Fanny's was the ultimate hot spot of the 1970s, Frankie's on the Plaza evokes a different kind of glamour, more Stork Club than Studio 54. Taking over the lease of the vacant Annie's Santa Fe Mexican restaurant, Fontana gutted the dining room (and the tiny kitchen) and gave designer Sarah Dornbusch a free hand to create a cool, contemporary space with a balcony-wrapped mezzanine, silver-gilt mirrors, and soft carpet that picks up the pattern of the mirror frames and the metal mesh throughout the room.

"It's very edgy and urban but not scary," said my friend Karen, taking a sip of a Basil Bianco cocktail, made with basil-infused vermouth. "I like it."

It's a grown-up restaurant, designed for patrons who prefer dining in leisurely fashion to grabbing a quick bite before a movie. There's no children's menu for a reason. "We don't get many kids in here," Fontana says, smiling wryly.

The well-dressed crowd that dines here consists mostly of friends and fans of Fontana's -- predominantly older than fifty but with such joie de vivre that you can easily imagine them doing a nasty hustle on Fanny's dance floor -- who come in for the dishes he's made famous, like the Lobster Giordano, the Filet Modiga introduced at Fanny's (back when Lazer Avery, the current bar manager at Frankie's, was the young executive chef) and the osso buco from Veco's.

It's the newer, Asian-inspired offerings that are the real culinary surprises here -- crunchy shrimp-and-vegetable rolls that can be dipped in a mango sweet and sour sauce, or fried pot stickers stuffed with fat chunks of lobster meat and shiitake mushrooms. The night I dined with my fashionista friend Karen, we were hesitant about the Asian choices, so we also selected a familiar option, light and crunchy calamari, to be on the safe side. But the pot stickers were extraordinary, as were the spring rolls, stuffed with the biggest shrimp I'd ever seen.

I was even more anxious about ordering something called Hong Kong Chicken, especially after seeing the cross-cultural ingredients -- shrimp, water chestnuts, spinach, and provolone cheese -- crammed into the chicken breast. Huh? But the dish (created by Scottsdale, Arizona-based chef Jim Valli) was absolutely delicious. Crispy, tempura-battered circles of stuffed chicken are artfully arranged on a bed of spicy linguini and splashed with an orange almond sauce. It's succulent and sexy. Ditto for Karen's meaty veal chop, caramelized on the grill to a deep amber and gorgeously moist and tender.

"How did I not know about this place?" Karen asked. "I'm on the Plaza every day."

The restaurant didn't open with a lot of hype, but Fontana's admirers sure knew about it right away. My friends Marilyn, Lillis and Bob called immediately and demanded to go there. "If Victor is running it, it will be a place to see people and be seen," said Marilyn, who swept into the restaurant like a star and was certainly treated like one by Fontana and his staff. She wasn't sure she wanted to sit up on the balcony level at first, but she later decided it had more cachet than the larger lower level "where everyone sits."

OK, so she's a snob. But at Frankie's on the Plaza, it's still cool to have some attitude. The servers do (they're all pros), and so does chef Jeff Worden's cuisine, which packs a punch when you least expect it. A Caesar salad with a wasabi dressing and blue cheese crumbles? It's an unorthodox approach to the classic Caesar -- which is also on the menu -- but unexpectedly tasty.

The grilled black angus strip that Lillis ordered was decked out with both pungent gorgonzola and a Merlot ginger sauce, and Bob's juicy Filet Modiga was bubbling with melted provolone, roasted mushrooms and lemon juice. I managed, somehow, to help Marilyn finish off a brawny, 16-ounce shank of osso buco -- simmered for four hours in leeks, garlic and wine -- so tender that it fell willingly off the bone onto our forks. It's a glorious dish, almost too much for a single diner, especially if the siren song of dessert is calling. And, baby, it was.

If strawberry shortcake has become a culinary parody in too many restaurants (with sugary berries scattered over dry pastry and doused with fake whipped cream), then Frankie's is serving the classiest, most faithful version in town. Created by Alison Phillipe, the fresh, unsweetened berries are heaped on a flaky, nutmeg-flavored scone boasting a towering swirl of mascarpone whipped cream. It was a light and lovely finale to a perfectly elegant dinner. But as delicious as the food can be at Frankie's on the Plaza, the restaurant's distinctive style is best represented by the owner. Victor Fontana wears tailored sports jackets and still looks like a movie star, and he stops at every table to say hello, just as he's done for the past forty years. The difference is that when he's in the dining room, all the patrons are somebodies. And where else on the Plaza does that happen?

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