Mouthing Off

A little dinner music: It’s one thing to eat dinner watching a nearly nude girl swing around a brass rail (see Gala review above) and quite another to be serenaded by singing — and fully clothed — waiters, which is still in vogue at Romano’s Macaroni Grill (9292 Metcalf Avenue). It’s not unusual to be dipping a wedge of warm foccacia into a pool of extra-virgin olive oil just as the server at the next table bursts unexpectedly into an Italian aria. Okay, so he’s not Pavarotti, but this is a restaurant, not a concert hall.

That’s what professional performers, such as Candace Evans and Bradley Allen, have to remind themselves when they sing for their supper — and yours — in the busy, noisy dining rooms of local restaurants.

“We’re basically providing background music,” says the petite singer-pianist Evans, who performs with guitarist Tom Pender and bass player Ricky Anderson on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights at the dark and cozy Fairway Grill (2820 W. 53rd Street). “I don’t sing at the Fairway Grill, just play music,” Evans says. “We’re creating ambience.”

But ambience can lead to bigger and better things. Ever since Marilyn Maye was discovered singing at the Old Colony Steakhouse (then at 35th and Broadway) by Tonight Show host Steve Allen in the late 1950s and, several decades later, Oleta Adams caught the attention of Tears for Fears members while she was singing at the Westin Hotel’s long-gone Signboard Bar, there’s the hope that even in Kansas City, career lightning can strike.

That’s why drummer and singer Bradley Allen is willing to pay his dues singing at the front of the Grand Street Café (4740 Grand Avenue) with guitarist Tom DeMasters and bassist Craig Akin on Monday nights from 5:30 to 8:30. Sometimes customers in the back of the restaurant can’t hear him, but he says he’s building a following, and that’s what it’s all about.

“I’ve been in this town for a couple of years but was only playing sporadically until I realized I needed a steady gig to get some recognition here,” says Allen. “And so I play at Grand Street on Monday nights and at the Coyote Grill on Tuesday nights. And it really works. I’m building a fan base.”

So much so that the Coyote Grill (in the Mission Shopping Center, 4843 Johnson Drive) learned its lesson the hard way.

“The managers weren’t sure if people really cared about the music,” says Allen, “so they let me go and I didn’t play there for a couple of weeks. Then I got a call saying that everyone kept asking for us, and they hired us right back.”

At the Coyote Grill, the Bradley Allen Trio includes guitarist Rod Fleeman and plays in the center of the dining room.

“Sure, I would prefer to be showcased in a concert setting,” Allen says, “but I see playing in restaurants as a stepping stone. It’s a way to build up your name.”

That’s also the reason Alan Stribling — computer network engineer by day, crooner by night — kept nagging the managers of the Raphael Hotel Restaurant (325 Ward Parkway) to give him a chance.

Stribling, who did his act (playing pop songs, standards, and show tunes) on a Princess Cruise Line for a couple of years, has headlined the Raphael since 1998, singing everything from Cole Porter to Led Zeppelin for the lounge crowd and, a few feet away, the dining crowd eating chef Peter Hahn’s signature rack of lamb and decadent chocolate mousse.

Stribling says he’s used to the clatter of plates, the tinkling of glasses, and the hum of nearby conversations when he plays. “It doesn’t bother me. People want to be entertained, and I’m there to entertain them.” Stribling’s been asked by other restaurants to “put a little trio together,” but, he says, “that’s not what I do. Me and a piano, that is my act.”

Evans is more easygoing: She provides mood music at the Fairway Grill with her trio during the week but gets a chance to sing and swing at the jazz club and restaurant Jardine’s (4536 Main Street). “I can do everything there. And when I sing, I sell a lot more of my CDs.”

Good performers can do more for restaurants than put customers in the mood for love — if they hit the right chords, they might put even dieting diners in the mood for an extra dessert.

Categories: Food & Drink, Restaurant Reviews