I'm wearing black, a show of mourning for the three Kansas City restaurants scheduled to close forever December 1: Skies, the Peppercorn Duck Club and Benton's Steakhouse. It's always bittersweet when a restaurant that used to be a favorite ends a long and glorious run.
I actually shed a tear or two when Stephenson's Old Apple Farm Restaurant closed in 2007. I mean, it wasn't the kind of restaurant that was ever going to win a Michelin star, but the menu of old-fashioned comfort food had an evergreen appeal, and the theme dining rooms were masterpieces of all-American kitsch. All right, the food and the décor had grown tired by the end — the last time I dined there, I walked out feeling like I had just visited a dying relative in a nursing home. Stephenson's was already on life support.
Some old restaurants, like old soldiers, just fade away. But others go on and on like the Energizer Bunny. Some of these are beloved — even revered — for all the right reasons. Yet for every such place that has labored to generate a constant stream of regulars, there's at least one old joint that sticks around almost in spite of itself, making no move toward innovation or renewal (or, sometimes, good food) while inexplicably packing 'em in. How? For crying out loud, why?
Well, it's complicated. Some restaurants remain popular because of nostalgia. People grew up eating in some mediocre dining room, had their first date at a certain drive-in. They might not return often to the restaurant in question — if they go back at all — but they need it to be around, an affirmation of their own continued existence.
It's more than wistfulness for the bygone that keeps a handful of local restaurants in business, though. The more I thought about it, the more I understood that a few places enjoy a kind of cult following. In a couple of cases, it's charming and understandable. In a couple of others, it's baffling and borderline terrifying. I'm talking unremarkable food, eye-searing décor, maybe a line cook who looks remarkably like someone you just saw on America's Most Wanted.
These are modest establishments. The dining rooms are small, the overhead isn't steep, and there's no pretense. Maybe you love them because the foodies of the world don't. The salads will never know the flavor of an heirloom tomato. The crème brûlée has never graced the dessert list. Local epicure Bonjwing Lee isn't at the next table, taking iPhone pics of his dinner. Anthony Bourdain isn't coming. Even Guy Fieri isn't coming. And they've now outlasted award-winning Skies, Benton's and the Peppercorn Duck Club.
To what unambitious survivors do I refer? Let's start with Tony's Villa Capri restaurant, a place that some of my friends adore so much, they won't hear a word against it. I know a few who shudder at the mention of the place, but you won't ever hear me bad-mouth a restaurant that still has a black light and a glow-in-the-dark mural. Tony Scudiero, who has operated the Overland Park restaurant for a half century, opened this version of the Villa Capri in 1961, when 81st Street and Metcalf was at the southern edge of the suburbs.
"When I was a teenager," my friend Deb says, "this place was packed all the time. All the Johnson County kids came here because it was one of the only places on Metcalf where you could get pizza. And it looks just the same."
There's no shortage of pizza options on Metcalf now. Outside Villa Capri, development has rarely ceased. Inside, though, the clock has happily stopped. Want to know what an Italian restaurant looked like during the Kennedy administration? Here you go: checked vinyl tablecloths, paper napkins, Frank Sinatra's voice emanating from a speaker. And if the chairman of the board himself wandered in, he'd have his choice of the usual three salad dressings: Italian, ranch and blue cheese (all still made in-house). What is this thing you call balsamic vinaigrette?