Earlier this year, I devoted this space to an imaginary Country Club Plaza, one populated with only local restaurants — no chains. I still think it's a good idea, so it would be a little disingenuous of me to kick the locally owned Mexican restaurant Zócalo, which opened on the Plaza this fall.
The city's historic shopping and entertainment district has a checkered past when it comes to Mexican dining. Among such recent Plaza destinations was the charmless Mi Cocina, where the atmosphere was glossy and the food glossier. Further back in time was Annie's Santa Fe, the 1980s fixture that most people wistfully recall as having served good food. It was actually pretty second-rate, but nostalgia is a potent thing, and a Plaza without any Mexican food is a Plaza that people love less.
I like Zócalo a lot more than I thought I would. What the place has, in abundance, is potential. The owners, including Chris Ridler of Sol Cantina on 31st Street (speaking of second-rate food), opened their new place less than three months ago, so there's time for it to live up to its promise. They'd better step it up fast, though. Plaza diners make up their minds quickly.
Its problems don't include location, unless you believe in curses. The corner it occupies is a high-traffic spot, but its last tenant was the failed Mi Cocina. The building is now lighter and warmer, thanks to a bank of glass doors opening onto a new patio. The interior remains sleek, but the colors now are comforting earth tones. The soundtrack — a friend calls it "modern electronic" — is upbeat but not annoyingly loud. The servers are young, attractive and smart. So how can this place go wrong?
I've heard a lot of people — those folks who dash to new restaurants the minute they open so they can "review" the eateries for their friends — talking about Zócalo since it opened at the end of September. Most of the early crowd has said the same thing: It's a pretty restaurant, and the bar makes fabulous cocktails. The food, I keep hearing, is "OK."
OK? What the hell does that mean?
What might cause people to utter that noncommittal two-letter assessment is that Zócalo's owners put a lot of effort into creating pre-opening hype without warning local Tex-Mex addicts what they were in for. The place was announced as a collaboration between Ridler, who is known for his successful saloons, and the owners of Frida's Contemporary Mexican Cuisine, in Overland Park. Frida's serves beautiful, imaginative, delicious Mexican food — no grease, no glop. The idea was to bring that approach to the Plaza.
That partnership fell apart almost as quickly as it was announced. "The two groups had different visions," one Zócalo server explained to me. I don't know what the "vision" was before the two factions split up, but the result has proved to be a vast improvement over the Plaza's last tenant serving south-of-the-border dishes, the Mexican mess known as Baja 600.
If owners Ridler and Anthony Durone envisioned a stylish but accessible hipster hangout (like nearby Coal Vines) that could also appeal to tourists who flock to America's oldest shopping center, they've pulled it off. Chef Nathan Nely's menu is mostly well-executed and pretty tasty, and it is devoid of cheesy Tex-Mex. The waitstaff wastes no time explaining to patrons that the restaurant doesn't offer burritos, refried beans or chimichangas. And the servers told me that people, having perhaps awakened from comas brought on by a long night at Annie's, do come in asking for these items.