The relic was from Biba's, which had a brief but dazzling run as Kansas City's version of Studio 54 at the height of the disco craze. My cynical friend Ned remembers the place having less dazzle than snobbery. "But it wasn't like Studio 54, with Liza Minnelli and Halston and Bianca Jagger," he says. "It was a bunch of aging Mission Hills swingers who were still doing the Lindy Hop."
Joe Wilcox, the general manager of Plaza III for the past 15 years, missed out on shaking his groove thing on the sunken dance floor by the time he moved to Kansas City in 1979, disco was dying and so was Biba's. But he remembers the other theme nightclubs that came and went in the same basement space: Rio, Flashbacks, the Key Largo Surf Club and the City Light Jazz Club.
The City Light concept named after a popular 1980s venue in Waldo had even been his idea. "We had so many customers coming in asking for a jazz club, we thought we should have one," Wilcox says. The problem with running a nightclub with a different name in the basement of the Plaza III restaurant, Wilcox discovered, was that customers were constantly confused. "They didn't understand that the club was part of Plaza III and that we served food down there, too."
Jazz musicians still perform on weekends in the subterranean space, which got a tasteful makeover in August. But it's primarily an additional dining area to complement the upstairs rooms, which have not been redone since 1986. Customers don't seem to mind those dated brass light fixtures and tiny bathrooms, though. Even with its beefy competition nearby Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, the Capital Grille, and the new M&S Grill Plaza III remains one of the busiest restaurants on the Plaza. And, bringing the subject back to history, at 42 years old, it's the oldest dining establishment in the Plaza district.
"If you don't count Topsy's Popcorn," Wilcox says. Well, I certainly don't. But the longevity of Plaza III is one of the reasons why I was interested in returning to review the place. It has outlasted all of its competition from 1963; four decades of other eating joints have come and gone in the neighborhood.
What's even more incredible is that Plaza III still sticks to the same basic approach established by its three founders. In its early days, the décor at Plaza III was vaguely Spanish, but the menu was all-American: shrimp cocktail, thick steaks, live Maine lobster and pecan pie. Plaza III was named for the team of Paul Robinson and Joe and Bill Gilbert, who shrewdly turned a loser location where three short-lived restaurants had failed into one of this city's first fancy steakhouses. Before Plaza III, Kansas City steakhouses were mainly no-frills chophouses, such as the Golden Ox.
On a bitterly cold Sunday night, I blew into Plaza III with five frostbitten friends, including two vegetarians. In '63, dinners started out with a chilled relish tray. They still do! When the server brought out an icy silver bowl laden with celery, carrot sticks and radishes, I did a double take. I can't even remember the last time I visited a restaurant that still offered relish trays. In the good ol' days, Plaza III also included soup and salad with the meals. That tradition, alas, went the way of the $1 shrimp cocktail and the $5.50 whole lobster (two attractions from the 1967 menu).