Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Those Were the Days My Friends . . . or Wasn’t 1997 Just Yesterday?

Let’s go back: Twenty years ago, the Kansas City restaurant world was a different place.  The Plaza had many local restaurants while downtown really wasn’t an eating destination other than daytime. The Power and Light District, the Sprint Center, the Kauffman weren’t around. The Crossroads basically didn’t exist either.  Zona Rosa wasn’t developed until 2004.  Prairiefire followed ten years later when 135th wasn’t too far South for many to even contemplate.  If you were asked back then about our restaurants, you’d probably mention only steak and barbeque – not sure we could be called a “restaurant town” like we are today.

Our logo by thenA restaurant town, according to Charles Ferruzza, acclaimed food critic here who is writing a book about “old” KC and its eateries, means that our metro area has “a lively, varied and interesting selection of independently-operated restaurants, upscale chain restaurants, and ethnic dining that go beyond the traditional.”  We did certainly have some of that going on, but nothing like today.

And if it were before summer of 1997, you definitely wouldn’t mention the Restaurant Guide of Kansas City.  It’s our 20th anniversary in June this year, and that’s what got the publishers, Kathy and Laurent Denis, thinking about eating in Kansas City back then.  “We were mostly a paper magazine, starting out with 37 (of which 15 are still open!) restaurant clients.  We placed 60,000 magazines every quarter in hundreds of different locations.  We had a web site, too, but at the time, people really didn’t care.

“Now . . . well you know about us now. We still keep the paper version which both locals and visitors rely on and we have a very large on-line presence as our social media is vibrant.  We love that we provide valuable information!”


 But enough about us.  Let’s go back.

The Departed and the Remaining
In 1997, there were some favorites that are no longer with us:  Houston’s and Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse in the Plaza, EBT, The Savoy and Italian Gardens, Leona Yarbrough’s, Costello’s Greenhouse, The Golden Ox in the former stockyards, among others of course. Tell us your favorite departed restaurant and why you loved it.  (Yes, it’s a contest.  Go to kcrestaurantguide.com. and enter for a chance to win a night at Chateau Avalon and a $100 gift certificate to one of our restaurants.
 
Despite the competition, many restaurants open twenty years ago are still going strong.  A few I can think of include The Classic Cup, Le Fou Frog, Kelly’s of course, and Jasper’s.  I know there are many others. Two are even celebrating 60th year anniversaries this year:  Hereford House and Jack Stack Barbecue – is it a coincidence that they have highlighted what Kansas City has been known for?


KC Masterpiece
One of the oldest restaurants in town is in Independence Square, The Courthouse Exchange, which is 118 years old.   The pub was bought, changed, reinvigorated in 2004 by Cindy and Ken McClain, who were determined to do something about the Square, beginning with Ophelia’s in 1998.  They are a great example of people who became innovative restaurateurs.  They ended up changing the face of their city – adding Clinton’s Soda Fountain, Square Pizza, Diamond Bowl, Main Street Coffee House, El Pico – and several retail stores, all making Independence Square a true destination –  a major reason the location is now thriving according to Cindy, CEO of McClain Restaurant Group and CRM Stores.

Survival: The how & Why
Longevity can also come about because there is either a succession plan in place or somehow, the children of the original owners come “home” like Rebecca Ng of Bo Lings.  Some began there like Rene Bollier of André's Confiserie Suisse.  He started working at age 10 when not at school.  He said his parents never pressured him but it was always understood that if he did have dreams of running André’s, he would work in every area of the business.  His dad decided in 2008 it was the “right time to pass the title on.” He says, “I always loved it, even while having to wake up at 3am on Saturday morning to go in with my dad.” Case Dorman, President/CEO of Jack Stack, is an example of a planned transition. Case’s first restaurant job was at the Smoke Stack which he rejoined as general manager in 1987 and he and wife Jennifer bought the business from her parents in 2009.  Jack Fiorella had created a transition agreement in 1991 so it was well planned, he says. One of the largest differences he and all the others point to is the amount of competition even from just twenty years ago.  “There are so many great operators today and our guests’ expectations are much higher than in the past (as they should be).”

In 1997, there were not as many restaurants in town.  As our
Club 427
population has grown to over two million from about 1,690,000, so have the number of restaurants, many of which are casual and counter types.  Whereas the restaurant industry’s share of the food dollar was 25% in 1955, it has steadily climbed and today, it’s 48%. Jimmy Frantze, owner of JJ’s, points out some similarities for his restaurant beyond its move necessitated by the fiery tragedy of his 90 year old building: “A warm, friendly atmosphere is still necessary.  Steak remains an often-selected item here.  But many of our new items reflect the modern trend towards more spice and esoteric ingredients. Social media, which was nonexistent in 1997, has now become a large part of our advertising and promotional efforts – for example, online apps have become almost mandatory for taking reservations.”

Ethnicity Broadens
Ethnic restaurants in the 90s included Mexican and Chinese which now the National Restaurant Association no longer regards as ethnic – they’re pretty typical according to Ferruzza.  Restaurants like Bo Lings, which opened in 1981, or Margarita’s in 1985 are still popular even if these once “ethnic” restaurants are not considered quite so ethnic anymore.


Rebecca Ng Clark, who returned from a different career to work in her parents’ Bo Lings restaurants and says she is still learning about every facet of the very complex business of running six local restaurants, agrees with this.  “I think that Chinese cuisine is much more mainstream today than it was when my parents opened up in 1981.  That is wonderful because so many more people are enjoying Chinese food, but there is also growing competition – from other Asian cuisines (say, Nara or Saki Asian for instance).    But all this is great to me, as it shows that people in our area seem to be more open-minded than ever when it comes to delicious Chinese/Asian cuisine.”

In 2017, we truly do define ethnic more broadly and certainly restaurants such as Grünauer (Austrian), or Piropos (Argentinian) or Sawasdee Thai and Thai Place (guess) or bd’s Mongolian Grill or India Palace or Krokstrom Klubb (Scandinavian) all offer us tastes of other cultures and their foods.  That’s a lot of name dropping but there are now many, many more around us. This does make our culinary lives more interesting.

Setting Trends
In 1997, food trucks were a non-item except at fairs of one kind or another and street food-inspired dishes were pretty much not seen anywhere.  Perhaps other than places like Margarita’s or El Pueblito or La Parrilla or Ixtapa or El Pico or some of the Mexican restaurants on Southwest Boulevard proffered the casual, interactive, innovative approach of food trucks, but that was as close as we came – a more relaxed atmosphere.  And now food trucks are getting fancy, with far more unusual offerings than they had earlier this century.

Waaay back then, in 1997, “natural,” farm to table, vegetarian, vegan, healthy were not words you heard quite so often – they were more on the fringe element side.  The restaurants all had some salads of course, but veggies were pretty much a side on the plate by the meat.  Today, in restaurants from Jack Stack’s (salads! salmon!) to Waldo Pizza which has both a gluten free and a vegan menu, there are many more health-conscious items than we saw even just twenty years ago.  Cindy McClain from Independence Square points out one big difference: “Today it has to taste great.  People won’t sacrifice their taste buds.”

Twenty years ago, Madeleine Albright became the first female Secretary of State, Diana died, the Lion King opened on Broadway, a pound of hamburger cost $1.38 and you’d go see Titanic, Jurassic Park, Liar Liar, or the Rainmaker at the Plaza theater and follow it with a meal at perhaps Plaza III or The Classic Cup or Starker’s which ended with molten chocolate cake.  Fondue had come to us in the 80s, hello The Melting Pot on the Plaza, and crêpes had come and gone, only to return in the last few years.

Today and Beyond
By 2017, “fine” dining is almost defunct if by that you mean white tablecloths, required jackets for men, formal (and stiff) service and soft music and we now expect gourmet food almost everywhere, once mostly found at these establishments.  Cafeterias, most popular in the 30s and 40s, are now grandparents’ memory, decimated by “fast casual” by the early 80s.

But we still do have buffets, especially popular at casinos for their plentiful selections at one price like the Epic Buffet at the Hollywood Casino, noted for its large selection of fresh food. Other restaurants which have special buffets on holidays like the Walnut Room in the Hilton or Harvey’s in Union Station.   The other manifestation of the buffet concept can be found in Brazilian restaurants. Em Chamas Brazilian Grill, Fogo de Chão, and Porto do Sul all present large buffets of any number of ethnic and American dishes to go along with their meat selections.


In 2017, national restaurant industry sales will be about 800 billion dollars whereas food and drink sales were about 120 billion in 1980. There are now over one million restaurant locations.  Most of them, nine in ten, have fewer than 50 employees and seven in ten restaurants are single unit operations.  That all rings true in Kansas City in 2017, too.  And some of these restaurants stay in the family for years, transferring to the younger generation as time goes by.  For instance, Jason Quirarte is now working with his father, Dave Quirarte, at Margarita’s Amigos who began his restaurants on Southwest Boulevard.

Trends to continue from 2017 include more healthy choices but becoming more flavorful. Locavores rule. There will be more ethnic restaurants but their specialty foods will continue to jump to innovative mainstream menus. We have seen more diversity in food choices but comfort food will always remain. Grocery stores will continue to realign their shelf space to create more “to go” items and include restaurants with some even placing bars in their stores (the drinking kind, not the metal). There are a hundred more I could name.

Dining out remains both entertainment and nourishment just as it was in 1997, just as it is now, and just as it will be in the years following.

1997 – those were the days, indeed.  Check us out in 2027 for our 30th anniversary, my friends!



Almost Our Category – Fifteen to Nineteen Years
BD's Mongolian Barbeque
Café Provence
Café Verona
La Parrilla
McCormick & Schmick’s
Ophelia's
Pierpont's
Piropos
The Melting Pot
Webster House
Zen Zero

At Least They’re Sixty
André’s
Hereford House
Jack Stack Barbecue

Granddaddies of Them All 
(Over 100 Years!)
Courthouse Exchange
The Elms Restaurant


1 comments :

Unknown said...

No mention of 40 years of Ponaks? They were there long before Margarita's. Arthur Bryant's didn't make the 60+ years list? What about 80 years of Strouds?