Dining » Restaurant Reviews

A Girl's Best Friend

Webster's Restaurant brings ladies who lunch back downtown.


I know only a handful of women who don't have careers. Even the ones who stay home with their kids don't wear white gloves and hats to "take lunch." But at the height of America's sexual revolution in the late 1960s, there was something wickedly fun about mocking bored suburban housewives and their long, lingering lunches at the country club or department-store tea room. Here's to the ladies who lunch ... Lounging in their caftans and planning a brunch, wrote composer Stephen Sondheim for his 1970 musical Company. Mrs. Robinson from The Graduate was a classic example; instead of having a beauty appointment, why not an affair?

Lunch was for the less adulterously inclined, though there was still a touch of sinfulness to gossiping over a vodka stinger or brandy alexander on the ruse of planning a charity event. Hell, I'll drink to that!

In his song, Sondheim called this vanishing breed of well-bred, well-married and nonworking ladies the dinosaurs surviving the crunch. But dinosaur bones belong in museums, and the stylish society lady needs a noninstitutional setting for her forays into the real world. The fictional Kansas City matriarch Mrs. Bridge wouldn't lunch just anywhere, nor will her modern counterpart.

Plaza restaurants, such as the Bristol, once curried favor with this set by offering weekday champagne brunches and noon fashion shows with models in full-length furs. But the Plaza is too plebeian now, its merchants more interested in the tourist trade than the carriage trade. Café Europa and Aixois in Crestwood have the right social cachet, but "they get crowded so quickly and they're so noisy," complains one socialite.

That's why local doyennes are thanking heaven for philanthropist Shirley Bush Helzberg (the wife of diamond-magnate Barnett). She packed up all the European antiques and tasteful gift items from the old Crestwood Galleries at 55th and Brookside and took the whole kit and caboodle (along with the interior designer, manager and chef) downtown. Helzberg has spent the last year overseeing the elegant renovation of the 117-year-old Webster School (at the southeast corner of the field where Julia Irene Kauffman's new performing arts center will sit). After three decades of turning their Chanel-clad backs on Kansas City's core, the matrons are back, fearlessly parking their SUVs and BMWs at 17th and Wyandotte.

To be fair, socialites aren't the only ones dining in the restaurant that takes up the second floor of the old school (which now looks like the set of Tara inside). It just feels that way.

I've had lunch at Webster's five times since it opened, and a few businessmen have always been among the linen-and-pearls contingent. One afternoon I even saw the hostess escorting a trio of attractive twenty-somethings wearing T-shirts, shorts and sandals into the clublike "library" room -- directly to the worst table in the place, hidden in a back corner. I was eating solo that afternoon, up at the bar where I could get a good look at the rest of the patrons in the restaurant's most masculine room. There, a fat man in a suit dined with a languid redhead, a beefy guy conversed with a chubby gal over bread and butter, and four straight-backed, middle-aged dames alternately scowled at each other and devoured chef Timothy Johnson's cuisine.

"People are going there for the food, not to be seen," insists a friend of mine, a Mission Hills food snob who also says the two-month-old restaurant, which only serves lunch, "is all the rage right now."

That must be true, since it's hard to get a reservation on short notice. I sort of snuck in that day I ate at the bar, where I got first-class attention from the bartender. My perfectly enjoyable lunch that day started with a cup of cold, creamy yellow soup made with cucumber, mango and cilantro -- and luscious lemons, just tart enough to offset the mango's brash sweetness. I chose the day's penne pasta special, which came tossed in a sleek "velvet" sauce made with roasted garlic and Gorgonzola cheese, and tender chunks of grilled chicken, shiitake mushrooms and bacon.

If the bowl hadn't been garnished with a corsage of fresh marigolds, I might have called it a hearty dish, but Johnson's food is always prettied up like a gift package. For example, even though the amuse-bouche (French for "mouth amusement," a bite-sized prelunch treat) that day was an incongruously common fried okra, the six tiny slices drifted on an orange slick of vinegary, spicy "buffalo sauce." It looked elegant, but it wasn't as good as Piccadilly Cafeteria's.

On another afternoon, when I shared lunch with my friends Tom and Zodie, that starter was a less-rustic creation: figs stuffed with Gorgonzola and pancetta. That day, Tom and Zodie both complained that the coffee wasn't particularly robust and wondered why the vegetarian-sounding Historic Herb Garden Sandwich was made with smoked turkey. It did seem odd, but then again, so did the crab cakes, hardly bigger than miniature marshmallows and packed with scalding chopped peppers.

Strangely enough, the jade-green, jalepeño beurre blanc that accompanied the sautéed pork loin that day was much less fiery, even mellow. And it was the most demure portion of pork loin I'd ever seen -- just a half-dozen or so dainty bites. For those of us with healthier appetites, a much more satisfying lunch is the juicy filet of steak splashed with wild-mushroom broth and served with a pile of violet Peruvian potatoes.

Tom and I were the only men in the main dining room, which is painted a vibrant red and decorated like a nineteenth-century salon. The space nearly vibrated with the buzz of animated conversation, and we eavesdropped on four plump women at the next table, who were heartbroken that Jacobson's department store was closing. "I practically cried!" shouted one.

"I wonder why," Zodie said, and shot the woman a withering look. "Look at how she dresses! She never shopped there," Zodie hissed before turning her attention to the house salad of mixed greens, sliced melon, dried leeks and roasted peppers, sprinkled with feta cheese and cracked pistachios.

But patrons do shop in the warren of artfully decorated display rooms downstairs at Webster House. Afterward, they carry their festive little white-and-burgundy sacks right into the dining room.

"They sell those fabulous Votivo scented candles," said my actor-friend David, who insisted on being treated to a thirtieth birthday lunch at the restaurant (and ate with gusto, despite a hangover). "You know, everyone is talking about the place."

David complained that having to lunch in the dark library was "social Siberia." He thought the room needed something more glamorous than the carved monkey statue at the bar (in a tricorn hat and satin breeches). "It needs a big stuffed fish on the wall," he said between bites of a slightly runny, eggy ginger crème brûlée.

But that would have made the room much too virile, I decided a few days later, as I sat by myself at the bar listening to an old Frances Langford record playing over the sound system and luxuriating in a wedge of chocolate gâteau. Crackly and chewy on the outside, soft and moist inside, the pastry was decked out like a Paul Gauguin painting: Lush, glistening raspberries and blackberries nestled against satiny chocolate, and a puff of freshly whipped cream rose at a jaunty angle on top. It was deftly ornamented with slivered almonds, and a sprig of fragrant mint lay by its side.

It occurred to me that the dessert had all the right colors and elements for a lady's hat, the kind Mrs. Bridge might have worn to her midday meal. She would have felt quite comfortable dining at Webster's.

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