In a 2012 episode of the Travel Channel’s “No Reservations” television program, host Anthony Bourdain and his Russian pal Zamir Gotta visited Kansas City in search of the city’s best barbecue. When not licking barbecue sauce off their fingers, the peckish duo detoured to Stroud’s for the best fried chicken in the known universe and to The Savoy Grill for nostalgia and memories. The Savoy Grill, a Kansas City landmark, has been making memories since 1903 when it was added to the Hotel Savoy. Today, the Savoy Grill is the oldest restaurant in Kansas City while its home, the Savoy Hotel is the oldest continuously operating hotel in the United States west of the Mississippi River.
During its inception, the Savoy Grill did not allow women, a situation that quickly ended. The menu then offered prairie chicken and buffalo steak, delicacies which today would be considered exotic. After dinner, tables were pushed aside for music and dancing late into the night. The restaurant’s elegant features include stained glass windows, high-beamed ceilings, lanterns which were previously gaslights, tiled floors and an enormous carved oak bar. One of the restaurant’s spacious booths has come to be known as the “President’s booth” as it has played host to Warren Harding, Harry S. Truman, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan.
Among the Savoy Grill’s most distinctive features are murals depicting the perilous journey across the frontier. They were painted in 1903 and have been cataloged among the Smithsonian Institution’s “Bicentennial Inventory of American Paintings.” In 1974, the Hotel Savoy and The Savoy Grill were entered into the National Register of Historic Places. Since it’s launch in 1903, the restaurant has been in continuous operation save for a handful of days. During prohibition, rather than remove the bar, drapes were hung up to conceal its presence.
Over the years, the Savoy Grill has undergone some touch-up, but it remains an exemplar of a turn-of-the-century fine-dining establishment specializing in steak and seafood. Moreover, it remains a milieu for memories, reliving old ones and creating new ones. For my friend Bill Resnik, whose mom was raised in Kansas City, the nostalgia began the moment we descended the two steps into the restaurant and were cheerfully greeted by the amiable host Ron Garris, a golden-voiced troubadour who regales couples in love with romantic crooning. His rendition of “Let it Be Me” will leave you pining for the one in your life if he or she isn’t with you at the moment.
Service at the Savoy Grill isn’t just impeccable. It’s very personal. You’ll not only get to know your server, but possibly every other server in the restaurant. The servers work in tandem to make sure all their guests needs are tended to. They’ll engage you in good-natured raillery and will share their memories of their time at the restaurant. Ron, the 73-year old singing host, has been with the Savoy Grill for thirty years while our server, the indefatigable Sunny, has two years with the restaurant. My friend Bill hadn’t been to the Savoy in more than twenty years, but experienced the sensation of returning home from the moment he walked in.
During his visit to the Savoy, Bourdain observed that the menu features items he hadn’t seen on a restaurant menu in thirty years. While some might consider the menu a bit anachronistic, I consider it a throw-back to a bygone era, an opportunity to experience yesteryear in all its deliciousness. Reading the menu will elicit almost sheer joy from anyone who’s been a culinary student. From less savvy and inexperienced diners, it will prove an interesting departure from the copycat menus found in too many restaurants.
The list of appetizers is amazing in its diversity and audacity (fresh seafood in Kansas City). Cold appetizers include Danish Herring in sour cream, Crab Meat Ravigote, Shrimp Remoulade, Salmon Tartar and even Caviar. On the hot appetizers menu, you’ll find escargots, Coquille Saint-Jacques, Shrimp De Jnghe and Stuffed Deviled Crab to name just a few. The soups menu would be as much at home in New England as it is in Kansas City with three seafood soups, the type of which you’d find in Boston. Salads are not the nouveau style creations of the hip and happening new restaurants. These are the types of salads high-end restaurants served decades ago, salads such as Artichoke Hearts Mimosa, Avocado with Citrus Fruit, Hearts of Palm, Sliced Beefsteak Tomatoes and a tableside Caesar salad for two.
You might expect that the menu for a fine-dining restaurant in Kansas City, a city renowned for its storied history of stockyards, would be dominated by entrees showcasing meats. While the Savoy Grill does indeed feature an impressive bounty of beef–Chateau for two, Tournedos Rossini, Steak au Poivre, Veal Marsala and so much more, all prime,–it’s the seafood soiree which impresses even more. The boatload of Neptune’s bounty includes shrimp, frog’s legs, scallops, king crab, swordfish, catfish and even lobster. No ordinary lobster is this. The Savoy offers whole live Maine lobsters, baked or steamed, in small, medium and Jumbo sized for two. Lobster Newburg and Lobster Thermidor are also available as are a surf and turf combination that includes a lobster tail.
While you contemplate the compendium-like menu, a basket of breads is delivered to your table. The bread variety is quite interesting: cinnamon rolls, rye, and baguettes. The Savoy Grill was the second Kansas City restaurant on our trip to serve cinnamon rolls with our meal. Unlike the yeasty, buttery rolls served at Stroud’s, these are spiral-shaped and laced with a lot of cinnamon, but no icing. The rye was light and flavorful while the baguette proved a nice repository for soft butter. Unfortunately the bread wasn’t especially fresh. It was one of the two low points of a memorable meal.
The other was the restaurant’s Onion Soup au Gratin. Sheathed in a molten blanked of Gruyere and redolent with a plethora of sweet, delicate onions swimming in a light, flavorful broth, it would have been an excellent soup had it not been in dire need of desalinization. The manufacturers of canned soup might be proud to prepare a soup this salty, but a fine-dining establishment shouldn’t have let it out of the kitchen. A little salt goes a long way especially when a soup is made with all savory ingredients.
If you’ve never had the pleasure of experiencing the flair and showmanship of a Caesar salad created for you tableside, you haven’t been to an old-fashioned fine-dining establishment. At 23, our server Sunny is already a professional at mixing and whisking the ingredients on the large wooden bowl she ferries on her crowded cart, a conveyance laden with bowls, ramekins, decanters, wooden implements and more. Potent with fresh garlic, creamy coddled eggs, olive oil, thin savings of Parmigiano, salty anchovies and fresh green leaves, this is a real Caesar salad, the way they should be made.
Over the months leading to our eating tour of Chicago and Kansas City, my friend Bill regaled me with tales of a lobster so large, it could easily be mistaken for a crustacean from Jurassic Park. The Jumbo Lobster for two is indeed a colossal crustacean with claws nearly the size of Bill’s hands. Spelunkers haven’t explored as deeply into some caves as Bill did those claws. His fork made sure there was no lobster meat left unextricated from its depths. Nor did the tomalley (the soft, green “stuff” which New Englanders consider a delicacy, but others mistakenly believe is fecal matter) go to…waste. For nearly an hour, Bill cracked into his lobster with the finesse of “man-hands” from Seinfeld. He ate all but the shell.
The lamb is no less manly than the lobster. At a restaurant like the Savoy Grill, you’d never find “lollipop” lamb chops, those pert and petite lady-like chops with built-in “handles” which makes them easy to pick up and eat (yes, even at a fine dining restaurant). The Savoy’s lamb chops are double-cut and don’t have a cutesy handle. In fact, these bone-in beauties closely resemble a Filet Mignon though they’re much more flavorful. The lamb chops are thick and juicy, perfectly prepared at medium and lightly seasoned. The only accompaniment is a luminescent mint sauce, a nice foil for the lamb chops.
Some may consider the Savoy Grill a bit of an anachronism, no longer the cool place to see and be seen. Its bill of fare is steeper than many contemporary restaurants, but for the money you also be seated in the lap of stylish nostalgia, attended to by friendly servers, receive more food than some developing third-world countries and an occasional love song. It’s a special place with a timeless appeal.
The Savoy Grill
9th & Central
Kansas City, Missouri
LATEST VISIT: 8 September 2012
# of VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Double-cut lamb chops, lobster for two, Caesar salad