As the city starts to reopen, restaurants are slowly getting back into the swing of things—and finding unique ways to do it.
Patio Time in Westport
“Paris of the Plains” could be an even more apt nickname for Kansas City if the mayor and local business leaders have their way. Kansas City is looking to close streets in Westport to traffic this summer as a way of combating the coronavirus pandemic, Kansas City magazine was first to report.
A plan proposed by the Westport Regional Business League calls for the closure of Westport Road and Pennsylvania Avenue in the historic neighborhood, home to the oldest building in the city. Similar plans are being explored in the 18th & Vine Jazz District, the Power & Light District and North Kansas City’s Zona Rosa.
Bars and restaurants would be allowed to extend their patios across the sidewalk and into the street in front of their business. The occupancy rules for each spot would include their street patio space, and the novelty of sipping a cocktail on the street could be a draw for many. Mayor Quinton Lucas is a fan of the plan.
“I would love to make Westport more of a pedestrian plaza, including but not limited to shutting down Westport Road and Pennsylvania for two blocks on both ends of the intersection,” Lucas told Kansas City. “This provides us a moment to see what that would look like. It’s a time when we need spacing anyway. Let those restaurants operate like you would see in Europe.”
Cracking the Doors Open
With restaurants being allowed to reopen for in-person service in mid-May, notable local restaurants are following a wide variety of paths. For example, at the Westside’s Fox & Pearl, our 2019 Restaurant of the Year, they’re reopening with tables spaced much further apart, says chef-owner Vaughn Good. They’re also not taking walk-ins, which would allow contact tracing. “Until things open back up, we’re only accepting reservations, no walk-ins, no bar seating, and we’ll still be doing curbside,” he says.
Other restaurant owners aren’t comfortable reopening yet.
“We may start seating at fifty percent occupancy, and we’ll probably start taking reservations, which we’ve never done,” says Esther Shin, co-owner of popular sushi restaurant Bob Wasabi. “But our dining room is already so small, and so many people aren’t comfortable going out right now that we aren’t even sure it would work that well. For now, we’re still planning to do take-out and curbside pickup for our customers. We’re hanging in there.”
Empty Bar Stools
The rules regulating the first round of reopenings notably banned all bar stool seating. That left establishments like The Peanut on Main, the city’s oldest bar, to remain closed for in-person dining—they simply don’t have enough non-stool seating to make it worth it, explained a staffer. (The original Peanut is open for carryout wings and cheese fries.)
Other establishments that mainly have bar seating, such as the standout Monarch Bar cocktail lounge on the Plaza, are also opting to remain closed except to carry out drink kits.
“We’ve decided as a company that we’re not going to open until we can open in the style that The Monarch was intended for,” says Brock Schulte, bar manager. “I don’t want ten people in The Monarch, I want fifty people in The Monarch. It’s about the experience. The bar is the center of the room, and that’s where the party is. We literally designed the room for the bartenders to be on show and curate everyone’s experience—even people sitting at tables have a view of the bar. We’re not willing to sacrifice the details we put in The Monarch.”
If there’s one silver lining to the pandemic, it’s the creative solutions the restaurant community has found to support its own. Chef Collective KC is a network of chefs, food industry partners and growers collaborating to set up community kitchens in local restaurants, has launched the Community Meals Project, a city-wide workforce preservation and hunger relief effort.
Funded primarily by Bank of America, the project aims to provide nutritious meals for those in need and to employ displaced workers to produce those meals. While COVID-19 might have been the impetus for the Community Meals Project, the goal is to establish a sustainable model that can be relied on in any catastrophe.
“It works like this: A restaurant that has been impacted by a crisis and has to close its doors to the public can take our model and continue running their kitchen and employing their workers,” says Jon Taylor, founder of Chef Collective KC. “We work with our partners to pick up and distribute the food they make to those in need.”
The meals are distributed through partner nonprofits like Operation Breakthrough. So far, chefs Howard Hanna (The Rieger, Ça Va) and Michael Foust (Black Sheep), along with partners like the Culinary Center of Kansas City, have worked to deliver over fifteen thousand meals to the community as part of the Community Meals Project.
A Quiet Grand Opening
While the future of the restaurant scene isn’t clear yet and a number of establishments have announced their permanent closure, others are moving forward with openings. In the Crossroads, Nimble Brewing opened in May after delaying their original planned opening in mid-March. In Prairie Village, Patrick and Julian Quillec of Café Provence and French Market, had planned to debut their new restaurant Verbena in April, but eventually opened on May 11.
Their grand opening was a much quieter version than most restaurants experience.
“The reality is that I don’t know that there is a good time to open,” says Kara Beth Anderson, executive chef of Verbena. “The conversations since the stay-at-home order came out have been surreal—conversations about how to keep staff on, what do they work on, how do we move forward with a new project while some of our favorite restaurants are closing. We decided to open and see what comes. A lot of us that work in kitchens don’t know what to do with ourselves right now, so we decided to move forward with the staff that’s comfortable working.”
Verbena is located at The Inn at Meadowbrook Park and is following all the social distancing guidelines set by the CDC. The restaurant is seating at under fifty percent, which is about every third table, meaning parties are at least ten feet apart. Staff are wearing masks and gloves. It’s a different standard to get used to, Anderson admits.
“Opening a new restaurant is typically so exciting and something everyone kind of rallies behind, and there’s anticipation ramping up to it,” she says, “and for us that’s been really drawn out because of the delays. There’s also apprehension around whether people will come out, if they’ll feel comfortable, will they want to spend money—and it’s hard to feel that same excitement about opening when you’re trying to make sure your guests feel safe going out in public in the restaurant. But I spent time observing guests in our dining room on opening night, and it seems like it’s a little more of an intimate experience. You feel like you’re really taken care of, and it’s a more personal atmosphere. That was heartening.”