By Charles Ferruzza
Forgive me, but I can’t remember where or when I saw the cartoon of a man dining alone, but facing a table generously laden with familiar dishes: steak, potatoes, dinner rolls. And each of those dishes were speaking to him – in platitudes, like “Keep your sunny side up” – and the caption for the whole damn thing was “Comfort Foods.”
It’s funny, but the kind of dishes we now categorize as “comfort” fare typically fall into two camps: soul food and “home-style” dining, which overlap a lot, since the implied history of all of these dishes is that they represent the family meals prepared, say, by a loving grandmother (I had one of those, but her cooking style was strongly influenced by her youth in Sicily; my non-Italian grandmother came from a Midwestern farm family, but wasn’t much of a cook to put it mildly).
I have certainly craved particular dishes – soups, pasta, roasted chicken – when I’m not feeling well. It can’t be a nostalgic thing, because my mother wasn’t a stellar cook either and if I was in bed with a cold – as I’ve been all this week – as a child, I’d be lucky to get a bowl of salty canned chicken noodle soup and a saltine cracker from our very own little Nurse Ratched.
So in the elusive search for true “comfort foods,” that I believe most Baby Boomers feel entitled to be eating during a cold or fever, most settle for casual eat-in dining (think Panera or the Red Door Grill) or, if the occasion calls for it and a hand-crafted cocktail or a decent glass of wine is in order, the choice becomes much more particular, like restaurateur Kelly Manning’s six-year-old Tavern in the Village.
Now a staple in Prairie Village, Manning’s signature venue is an old-school dining location that updates a classic restaurant model that’s as familiar as any in those wonderful Warner Brothers movies of the 1940s.
Joan Crawford’s Mildred Pierce immediately comes to mind – she served fried chicken, waffles and a solid Manhattan cocktail – a joint that looks like a roadhouse, but far more upscale. And with waitresses who were clearly nice high school graduates instead of the gum-snapping femme felons lurking in the waitress station of Flamingo Road.
Tavern in the Village is the family-style restaurant of the Millennium. Meaning: Not for penny-pinching families or ones not quite polished enough to know what osso bucco might be (even if the braised dish served here is made with pork instead of the traditional veal shank).
Still, I can easily cut the Tavern a lot of slack because the place does have the aura of honest warmth and a sense humor about itself, the food is consistently good, and because Manning was a veteran of the iconic Morton’s Steakhouse chain before starting his own operation, the attention to detail and guest comfort is first-rate.
I wouldn’t call it an adventurous menu, but it’s certainly not dull. Manning understands his suburban demographic. The average patron here – primarily of a certain age — doesn’t want fine dining, but still expects a hint of formality from the dining experience. Nice, but not pretentious or too costly. Servings are generous, prices are right on point, the side dishes range from “whipped potatoes” (a lovable 1950s affectation for mashers) to cream-and-bacon sautéed Brussels sprouts.
It’s impossible not to like the place – Manning, a lifelong restaurateur, is the very essence of amiability – and that, more than anything, elevates Tavern in the Village to something more desirable than a venue serving “comfort food favorites.”
Now if only there was a piano in the lounge and Ida Lupino singing a melancholy version of “One for My Baby (And One More For the Road),” this restaurant would be practically perfect. Good food, great location – but not too happy.