Act Two

Culinary Concepts LLC, the once-powerful dining division of Hallmark, has shrunk to one restaurant. In 2004, it turned over the management of three Crown Center food operations — Milano, the Crayola Café and Golden Harvest Bakery — to the Hyatt Corporation. That left Culinary Concepts with the nationally acclaimed American Restaurant and, for some inexplicable reason, The Patio, the increasingly shabby dining room on the second floor of the Crown Center Hall’s store.

Well, maybe not so inexplicable. Hallmark bigwigs and employees loved the little luncheonette. A friend of mine who works at Hallmark practically went into mourning when The Patio closed on December 30. “It was a great little place for getting together with a friend and having sit-down table service,” she said. “You didn’t go for the food.”

But Robert Leitstein, president of Hall’s, did care about the food and wanted a change. So he called up Scott and Gigi Cowell, owners of the lunch-only Café Europa in Crestwood. “He called us several times,” Gigi says. “His wife, Alex, comes in to Café Europa all the time.”

After many meetings, a deal was struck: Culinary Concepts would exit, stage left, and the Cowells would take over The Patio and re-create it as a more sophisticated bistro. At the end of this month, the freshly painted and redecorated l’Etage opens. The French name, which translates as the stage, will be the new showcase for Scott’s soups, salads and sandwiches (yes, Café Europa’s signature chicken salad and tomato-basil soup will be on the menu), and, of course, Gigi’s desserts. “The Patio didn’t even have real desserts,” Gigi says, “just cookies and a yogurt parfait.”

Gigi isn’t sure she wants to offer her famous lemon cake there. “It’s Café Europa’s signature sweet,” she says. “Bob wants a French apple pie.”

The Cowells will also use real glassware (The Patio used plastic, even though Hall’s fancy glassware department was steps away) and blue and yellow table linens.

It’s highly unusual, especially in the Wal-Mart-dominated 21st century, to find restaurants inside department stores — almost as strange as finding full-service department stores. In Overland Park, Nordstrom still operates The Café, but it’s self-service and definitely not fancy, unlike the tea room in the old downtown Macy’s (which once had a smoky, men-only dining room) or the genteel Victorian tea room, at the long-razed Emery Bird Thayer, that in 1941 was turned into a less prissy cafeteria. It’s name? The Patio.

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