By Charles Ferruzza
The emotional roller coaster that was the year 2016 wasn’t limited to politics or celebrity deaths…it extended into Kansas City’s restaurant community. Restaurants, as they always do, opened and closed with their usual frequency (Hello Antler Room, goodbye Sweet Tomatoes!)
The most poignant news of the year was the unexpected death of Chef Jennifer Maloney, the popular longtime executive chef of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. The 55-year-old Maloney – a larger-than-life personality – died on Christmas morning after a short illness. Her talent and generous spirit made a terrific impact on local diners for over two decades.
Maloney’s long-serving sous chef, Janet Ross, had left Café Sebastienne earlier in the year to pursue other opportunities. One of them was a short-lived tenure at restaurateur Laura Norris’s Cucina de la Ragazza. Her stay at this midtown bistro lasted about as long as it takes to eat one of the restaurant’s celebrated meatballs.
Staying on the subject of talented chefs: Joe West had planned to open his boutique restaurant, Kusshi, as a restaurant within-a-restaurant inside Il Lazzarone owner Erik Borger’s ramen concept, Komatsu. That ill-fated partnership proved a fizzle, but West (whose resume includes stints at 40 Sardines and Bluestem) quickly rebounded when he was hired as executive chef of the new steakhouse from local Bread & Butter Concepts. That venue opened in the space at 4800 Main Street formerly occupied by Bo Ling’s. Komatsu, after many delays, finally opened its doors earlier this month at 3951 Broadway in Kansas City.
Johnson County’s well-fed demographic has attracted more than a few restaurants from the Missouri side of the border over the years (The Bristol, Pizza Bella), but recently lost one popular Thai restaurant in Lenexa when restaurateur Michael Brillhart packed up Sweet Siam Thai Bistro and moved it across the state line to Westport in late 2016.
But not everything was so sweet in 2016: Both Johnson County and Kansas City lost inexplicably popular salad bar restaurants when the San Diego-based parent company of the Sweet Tomatoes restaurant chain filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy and shuttered the locations at 1309 Meadow Lake Parkway in Kansas City, and 8505 College Blvd. in Overland Park in October.
But for every local buffet that bites the dust, another one opens. Although it’s not limited to fresh greens and fattening dressings, the Isle of Capri Casino in north Kansas City recently opened the Farmer’s Pick Buffet after spending months overhauling the former all-you-can-eat restaurant, Calypso’s, in the same space, which had been on life support for several years.
A somewhat different concept, the St. Louis-based Crushed Red Urban Bake & Chop Shop is scheduled to open soon at 10640 Roe Avenue in Overland Park. The culinary repertoire includes build-your-own salads and pizza.
An era ended when the national restaurant company Dine Equity – which moved from Johnson County to Kansas City, Missouri several years ago – closed two local operations of their Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar including the 30-year-old original location at 1046 West 103rd Street and the 20-year-old Olathe venue.
But one restaurant door opens for each one that posts a closing sign. Sayonara those two Applebee’s and hello to Berbiglia’s Roost which opened last fall in the freestanding building at 8725 Metcalf (long occupied by the Houston-based Fuddrucker’s fast-casual chain and, more recently, by an unsuccessful Asian buffet).
Veteran restaurateur Gary Berbiglia wasn’t interested in officially retiring, even after a three-decade tenure as a partner in the Arthur Bryant’s barbecue empire, so he took over the building’s lease and created a home-style venue that serves both barbecued meats and fried chicken.