Dining » Restaurant Reviews

A New Stripe

Let's hope downtown's revival catches hold quick, because the Zebra Room could be an endangered species.

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Recently, I ran across this line in a magazine: "The Hotel President will soon be operating at full capacity now that it is in new hands. The Phillips Hotel, after a long dormant period, opened its doors and appears stable. The Aladdin Hotel, with its see-saw approach of opening, closing, opening is hanging on like the rest of the community."

That paragraph sounds very now, but it was written 33 years ago by columnist Jerry Plantz for a long-forgotten publication called Kansas City Happenings. Kansas City's urban core was supposedly on the verge of a renaissance in 1974, waiting for the opening of the shiny new Bartle Hall Convention Center. Back then, Bartle Hall was supposed to save downtown. Hopes were high for all the tourists and convention dollars the new facility would bring in. Plantz wrote that as Bartle Hall rose, so did "the spirits of the owners of restaurants, managers of hotels, clerks in downtown stores, dressmakers, hairstylists and barbers ... the cocktail waitress and waiter."

The similarity wasn't lost on me as I thought of a new generation of restaurant owners, hotel managers, store clerks and servers who have their hopes pinned to the Sprint Arena and the Power & Light District to "save" downtown Kansas City.

The tastefully refurbished Holiday Inn Aladdin Hotel reopened in May after yet another period of "opening, closing, opening." Before Memphis-based Wright Investment Properties took over the badly aging 16-story hotel in 2006, it had been shuttered for three years. Previously, as the Holiday Inn Citi Centre, it had grown shockingly dumpy, and its restaurant, the Zebra Room, was a joke: bad décor, hideous food, insufferable service. The only good thing about this third-rate dining room was its name, which harkened back to a glamorous nightspot — also called the Zebra Room — that had occupied one-third of the present-day space in the 1920s and '30s.

In the years before and after the Great Depression, the Zebra Room was a sexy little hideaway where power brokers could have a secluded cocktail with their girlfriends. In those days, there was a doorway off the alley where the bigwigs could sneak in without passing through the lobby.

The amazing thing is that the 82-year-old Aladdin Hotel survived.

The first night I went to dine in the new Zebra Room restaurant, Bob, Fred and Lillis and I parked in the municipal garage across the street. As we walked toward the front door of the Aladdin, Lillis said, "You know, even when I was a young woman in the 1950s, this hotel was already sort of outre. The only real nice hotel downtown was the Muehlebach."

This new Zebra Room bears absolutely no resemblance to the blasé beanery of the same name from the pathetic Citi Centre era. The formerly dowdy Aladdin now has an imaginative, snazzy interior and, thanks to 28-year-old chef Sam Cross, the first excellent dining room the hotel has had in several decades.

It's not as sophisticated as the Chophouse in the neighboring Hotel Phillips, but this isn't a dinner-only restaurant. The two-month-old Zebra Room serves breakfast, lunch and dinner in a stylish but casual space. The uncloaked tables are topped with zebrawood veneer and set with red napkins and big china chargers done in a black-and-white motif. The walls are pale-gray, and the chairs and banquettes are upholstered in vivid red.

"It just borders on being vulgar," Lillis said. She sipped on a predinner cocktail while Fred slathered a piece of bread with chilled ricotta cheese drizzled with balsamic syrup.

"Even Diana Vreeland said that a little vulgarity can be a good thing," I reminded her as I looked over the menu.

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