t’s been almost exactly two years since City Tavern was last reviewed in this paper, and much has happened in the intervening months. But first, a brief look back at 2003: The expensively mounted restaurant was celebrating its first anniversary, and hardworking sous chef Tim Doolittle had recently been promoted to the executive chef position, replacing celebrity chef Dennis Kaniger. The food had improved dramatically, but the dining room still wasn’t doing the numbers that owner Dan Clothier expected, especially given that he’d opened his restaurant right next to two of the busiest venues in town, Lidia’s and Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue.
Flash-forward to this spring, when local food writer Lou Jane Temple revealed on KCUR 89.3’s Walt Bodine Show that Doolittle had left the restaurant and Clothier had told her that without a high-profile chef in the kitchen, the City Tavern was “finally making money.”
That comment rubbed a few people — including Tim Doolittle — the wrong way, but Clothier is unrepentant about changing the direction of his kitchen. Instead of hiring a costly new chef, he gave an additional title, kitchen manager, to longtime general manager Craig Christopher, who is now working both the front and the back of the house.
“He’s like a general who runs a tight ship,” said Clothier, who also praised former chef Doolittle for his talent and culinary ideas, but says he wanted to put more of his own imprint on the restaurant. And save a little dough, too.
Clothier wants a specific identity for City Tavern, and his inspiration isn’t the kind of trendy urban brasserie that the restaurant emulated in the beginning. No, Clothier wants City Tavern to have the time-burnished luster of San Francisco’s 156-year-old Tadich Grill (a beloved oyster-and-chop house that started as an unassuming coffee stand) or Chicago’s venerable Berghoff Restaurant, which turned 107 this year.
“I love those kinds of restaurants,” Clothier tells me. “They’re so incredibly dependable.”
From the very beginning, he wanted a connection to history. Before he’d even started construction in the old freight-house building in the Crossroads District, he purchased franchise rights for one of New York City’s culinary landmarks, the Grand Central Oyster Bar and Restaurant, located below Grand Central Station. There are still architectural details in his restaurant that evoke the original, but Clothier opted not to re-create another city’s icon. “I realized that what I wanted was what the Oyster Bar had been when I lived in New York in the 1970s, not as it is today,” he says.
City Tavern isn’t the only local restaurant with historical pretensions (Capital Grille and M&S Grill are designed to give the illusion of having been around for decades), but it’s the only one that comes close to pulling off the charade, thanks to its antique light fixtures, salvaged-wood flooring and distressed mirrors — and the sense of quiet decorum that one rarely finds in modern restaurants.
I’ve eaten at City Tavern a dozen times since it opened, but I never understood Clothier’s concept until recently, when I brought two New York friends, David and Becky, to dinner and saw the restaurant through their eyes. As far as David was concerned, it was easy to believe that City Tavern actually dated back to the 19th century.
“It’s a great old Midwestern dining room,” he said, admiring the linen-cloaked tables, polished flatware, tabloid-sized menus and attentive young servers in starched aprons. David visits Kansas City fairly often and has made pilgrimages to all the famous steakhouses, but City Tavern is, hands down, his favorite. “The best Kansas City strip I’ve had in this town,” he says.
Then again, he gave the same glowing praise that night to the shrimp cocktail (five fat crustaceans perched on a jade-green swirl of seaweed salad) and the honey-almond crème brûlée. “Are you sure this place hasn’t been around forever?” he asked.
No, I told him, but a lot of the dishes on the menu are relics from the era of Diamond Jim Brady and his favorite New York restaurant, Rector’s, where oysters, crab, lobster and steaks were standard fare. And though our little trio couldn’t indulge in the quantity of food that Brady could put away, we were rewarded in the quality of the excellent dishes we chose. The creamy New England chowder is exceptional, and Becky did her best Lillian Russell imitation by gulping down three iced oyster shooters, each in a frosty shot glass with an ounce of Absolut vodka, a splash of cocktail sauce and a pinch of horseradish. “It has a nice kick to it,” she said.
In true Diamond Jim fashion, City Tavern serves the most expensive seafood potpie in town — maybe the costliest local potpie, period — which Becky ordered and found to be as luscious as any coastal version of the dish: tender bay scallops and rock shrimp in a bubbling cream sauce with carrots, celery, peas and scallions tucked under a flaky pastry crust. David lingered over each juicy bite of his dry-aged steak (I took a nice chunk for myself and agreed with his rave opinion), and I loved every succulent mouthful of a golden roasted Campo Lindo chicken, sided with mashed potatoes seasoned with a light touch of horseradish.
We loved our server, the smoky-voiced Darren. We told him he should be on the radio, but he thought he would be too nervous unless he had something stiff, like one of those potent oyster shooters, to steady his nerves. Darren was unflappable, even when I realized I’d forgotten my credit card and had to call a friend to bring it over.
“Well, you do have an honest face,” insisted Becky, dipping a spoon into a trio of house-made sorbets in tropical flavors. The kiwi and mango were ridiculously sweet, but the raspberry had a nice, tart edge.
I’m not sure that I always look honest, but I must frequently appear hungry. On my next visit to City Tavern, our pretty server, Jessica, must have noted that I was practically salivating from the moment my friend Bob and I sat down. On the way to our table, I had passed the legendary broadcaster Walt Bodine dining with a friend and sawing through a big hunk of beef. It looked so good, I nearly snatched the steak off his plate.
“I’ll bring some bread right out,” Jessica said, just moments after greeting us. Was I that obvious?
I’m always a sucker for bread. And I’m even more vulnerable to the sound of a salad made with “duck prosciutto,” which sounded more decadent than it was. A heap of fresh spinach was topped with two tissue-thin slices of salty duck, sprinkled with pine nuts and orange segments splashed with onion vinaigrette. The duck was gone in two bites, and I was left with a big ol’ pile of spinach that seemed to double in size with each bite. I finally gave up.
Bob made a better choice with a bowl of summery cucumber soup, a cold and creamy concoction with chunky cubes of crisp cucumber. It was so wonderful that he begged our server for the recipe (and she got it for him); alas, by the time this review runs, the dish will have been replaced by a more seasonal autumn soup — “Maybe carrot-ginger or split pea,” Craig Christopher told me later.
I clearly must have been mad with hunger to order the deep-fried combo seafood platter, which was not what the doctor ordered in my case but was so delicious that I risked heart failure for the crunchy fried oysters, shrimp and a flaky hunk of cod in a tempura-style batter. And french fries, naturally.
Bob made a meal out of appetizers: shrimp cocktail, followed by a bowl of steamed mussels in a fragrant shellfish broth and then an exceptionally fine crab cake. Not inexpensive, but when you’re dining like Diamond Jim, it’s important to have options. Bob was also impressed by the civilized touch of an artfully folded warm napkin offered to wipe his hands after the mussel course.
“Very classy,” he said.
And that’s the one thing that hasn’t changed about City Tavern since it opened three years ago. The menu has undergone numerous revisions, chefs have come and gone, and prices have noticeably dropped as the economy has taken a dip (the most welcome change, as far as I’m concerned). But it remains a classy joint. For that reason, it may have the longevity of a Tadich Grill or the Berghoff. I sure hope it does.