Kansas City is home to one our country’s most storied restaurants. Yet, sadly, it is perpetually overlooked by locals and foreigners alike. Do you know about it?
In 1971, the founder of Hallmark Cards, Joyce C. Hall, opened Crown Center, a commercial palace to complement his company’s headquarters in downtown Kansas City. The jewel to the company’s crown was a restaurant, which opened three years later, in 1974.
Warren Plattner, designer of the famous Windows on the World in New York City and the Water Tower Place in Chicago, was hired to configure and outfit the space. Perched atop Crown Center, the restaurant wears Plattner’s signature, floor-to-ceiling window design. The dining room offers one of the most winsome views of the city’s skyline.
Joe Baum, the legendary restaurateur – father of theme restaurants like Windows on the World, The Rainbow Room, and Tavern on the Green – was brought on board to help conceptualize the restaurant. And with him, came James Beard, the father of American cookery, who helped cast the restaurant’s culinary vision and create the opening menu.
Aptly named, The American Restaurant was conceived to be a showcase for modern American cuisine.
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As co-executive chefs of the restaurant, Debbie Gold and Michael Smith won the James Beard Award for Best Chefs Midwest in 1999 (that was before Chicago was split off into its own region). Gold and Smith subsequently left the restaurant to open the tremendously successful 40 Sardines in Overland Park, Kansas, which closed in 2008 after the two parted ways. Smith now owns the eponymous, fine dining restaurant, Michael Smith, and a “tapas” bar, extra virgin. Debbie Gold, who was a competitor on Bravo TV’s immensely popular Top Chef Masters, has returned to The American Restaurant, where she is currently the executive chef. Together, they have, at one point or another, employed or trained nearly half of the chefs in Kansas City, including Colby Garrelts of bluestem, Ted Habiger of Room 39, John McClure of Starker’s Restaurant, Alex Pope of R Bar, and Josh Eans of blanc burgers + bottles.
During her tenure as the restaurant’s executive chef, Celina Tio won a second James Beard Award for Kansas City in 2007. You may have seen her braids recently on the reality cooking competition, The Next Iron Chef. She now owns her own restaurant, Julian.
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Historical significance aside, The American Restaurant is, undoubtedly, one of the two best restaurants in Kansas City right now. Over the past two years, I’ve dined there nearly two dozen times, including a few special dinners and events with guest chefs from near and far. The quality of ingredients and cooking is consistently high. Each meal seems better than the last.
Though this is not a paid advertisement, I must disclose that I am known to Chef Gold and her staff. They treat me very well.
They know which table I like, and I land there without fail every time. A basketful of heels – the crusty ends of the loaves they get from Fervere bakery – faithfully arrive with every visit. (They know how much I love them.) And my favorite server, a fellow with a particularly keen sartorial sense, pegged my suit size early on. From time to time, he tips me off to haute couture finds in my slim size on the more remote racks in the luxury department store, Halls, downstairs.
Indeed, they know my habits and me too well.
For this and many other reasons, I avoid blogging about this restaurant (and others) in my city.
But, it’d be a pity to let my relationship with the restaurant’s staff preclude me from telling you about what I believe to be one of the best restaurants in the middle of our country right now. Hopefully, you know that I’m not a ready mouthpiece or cheap cheerleader for any cause or restaurant [not even if they gift me with a nifty t-shirt (pictured above)]. You’ll have to trust my objectivity.
Classically trained, Chef Gold anchors her dishes near The Old World. You’ll find chicken with sauce vierge, agnolotti with freshly shaved white truffles, and Piedmontese côte de boeuf for two, for example.
But ever-aware of the changing and diversifying culinary landscape of our times, and in keeping with James Beard’s mission to establish a “modern American restaurant,” you will find modern cooking techniques and multi-cultural references on her plates as well. You will find a 63˚ egg, for example – runny and right – and flavors from Asia and Mexico (America is a melting pot, after all).
Also, in keeping with the times, the restaurant has done away with pushcart service (dishes used to be driven to your table on carts, a silly and impractical vestige of fine dining), though, to my delight, they’ve preserved a couple of table-side presentation, including an ever-changing flambé du jour on the dessert menu (cherries jubilee!!).
Gold and her team are strong supporters of local farmers and food producers. Much of what appears on the menu – everything from corn to chicken, even figs – is grown and raised in the area. The artisan cow milk butter that they get from a farm in northern Missouri is probably the best butter I’ve had in the United States, rivaled only by pim’s butter at Manresa. It is fatty gold.
In Gold’s kitchen are two talented young men right now. For their tremendous contribution to the restaurant’s current status, they deserve to be mentioned.
Andrew Longres, the sous chef (there is no title of chef de cuisine at the restaurant), is a workhorse. A bright-flight cook in his mid-twenties, I’m sure we will hear his name more in the coming years.
Nick Wesemann, the restaurant’s executive pastry chef, is a wizard with a whisk. Whereas Chef Gold’s cooking is more traditional, Wesemann conjures ultra-modern, ultra-sculpted, ultra-cool desserts. His work is precise and witty, delicious too. I once overheard a Michelin three-starred pastry chef joke, a little too earnestly, that he’d like to steal Nick from The American Restaurant. (Don’t you even think about it, Nick.)
Jamie Jamison, the general manager and wine director, curates one of the city’s best cellars. The wine list here is tremendous, a volume with few peers in the area. And, at the restaurant’s recently revived lunch services on the first Friday of each month, the entire list is half-priced. Though I suspect they wouldn’t be able to maintain that fantastic offer if they committed to a more regular lunch service, I wish they would open for lunch more often; I would go just for their wonderful croque madame.
Three courses for $55? Dinner here is a steal next to a meal at a comparable restaurant in a bigger city. There should be a waiting list for reservations. Inexplicably, there isn’t. One could easily spend $55 on three courses at any number of haplessly mediocre restaurants in our city, many of which are packed to the gills every night. The gastronomic myopia that plagues this country boggles the mind.
Plattner’s interior of the The American Restaurant has almost survived a whole generational cycle. Though the carpeting and upholstery could be refreshed (the restaurant was refurbished in 1990), what once seemed terribly out-dated is slowly becoming stylishly retro. The space is grand and showy. You half-expect showgirls, aplumed, to come parading down the brass-railed terrace under that canopy of lighted peacock fan fixtures at any minute. Where else will you find a dining room like this, with a view and food this good?
Kansas City: do you realize that we are home to the lovechild of American, culinary royalty?
The American Restaurant isn’t your grandmother’s restaurant any more, a relic to be observed from afar. It is yours and ours to enjoy. It is very much alive. And to keep it that way, we must not let it be forgotten. If you’re in Kansas City, put The American Restaurant on your short list. It deserves a visit.
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The American Restaurant
2545 Grand Avenue
Kansas City, Missouri 64111
Editor’s note: I received a wonderful note from Michael Whiteman, the other half of Joe Baum & Michael Whiteman Co., to thank me for this blog post. In it, he corrected me by noting that Quo Vadis was not among their projects (though he noted that he and Mr. Baum ate there often and mentioned their famous eel in green sauce and bolito misto). I have removed it from the list of restaurants attributed to Joe Baum. Also, he confirmed that Barbara Kafka was also involved in the creation of The American Restaurant.