For a hot minute, Whitten Pell considered calling the restaurant he's opening — with a group of investors — Whit's End.
"But then I realized I might be making a prophesy about the future that I didn't want to imagine," Pell says.
So when the new bar and grill opens in April at 5031 Main, in the space formerly occupied by Jack Gage American Tavern, it will be called the Beacon: a Kansas City Tavern. It was just a year ago that Jack Gage — owned by Blair and Russ Hurst — filed bankruptcy and closed soon afterward. Things like this happen to restaurant owners who don't pay the rent.
I met with Whit today in the restaurant, where the dining rooms are undergoing a very dramatic cosmetic makeover. The creamy yellow walls are being painted a shade of cool slate, and the once-dark woodwork is now painted over — in charcoal gray. The boxing memorabilia surrounding the bar — depicting British boxer Jack Gage — were removed a long time ago. Pell, a former concert promoter and producer, left Kansas City in the 1980s to work in New York, Los Angeles and Dallas. (He returned in 2006 after marrying his wife, Nancy, the owner of the Perfect Scents shop.) He's very excited about opening a new venue in the location. He's looking for a kitchen manager and a general manager for the Beacon, but he plans to be at the venue every day and every night.
Oh, did I mention that he's never worked in a restaurant a day in his life?
Pell has lots of experience in the entertainment business, however. He was the force that turned the former Uptown movie theater into a concert venue in 1971 before moving on to bigger entertainment opportunities on the coasts.
He says it never crossed his mind to open a restaurant until the Jack Gage space came up for lease. It was then, Pell says, that he felt a connection with the building (which has had so many failed restaurants and at least one gay bar in its history that some people believe the location is cursed). Pell grew up in the Brookside neighborhood, attended Southwest High School and has continued to live nearby. His business partners, he says, are also longtime Brookside residents. "We all grew up in this neighborhood," Pell says. "We're all committed to this community."
What the neighborhood directly south of the Plaza didn't have, Pell says, is a comfortable neighborhood joint, not a saloon but a family-friendly tavern serving sandwiches, salads, steak and pasta. I reminded him that this stretch of Main Street has two Italian restaurants (Accurso's, Osteria il Centro), two pizza parlors (Minsky's and Spin), a saloon that serves good food (the Peanut), a breakfast venue (Eggtc.), an ice-cream shop (Glace) and a Swiss patisserie and cafe (Andre's). No one is ever going to go hungry on this street. But Pell envisions the Beacon as being a place where neighbors can stop in for a modestly priced meal — there will be nothing on the menu over $22, Pell says — and see many people they know.
Pell and his partners are going to focus on this neighborhood and the surrounding communities as the marketing plan for the Beacon. It's going to be the spot, he adds, to see your friends from school, from church, from across the street.
I know I sound like a crank, but those would be the very qualities that would make me not want to go to the Beacon. I mean, I like my neighbors, but I see enough of them.
If the Cheers bar in the 1980s TV show was a place "where everyone knows your name," I'm thinking the Beacon will be the place where everyone knows if you went to confession or not. Or if you returned those overdue books to the branch library. Still, I can understand a neighborhood wanting a little dining spot and bar to call its very own. Waldo is full of them.
It's going to help a lot that this particular neighborhood is soon going to get a lot bigger. The empty lot across from the Beacon, Pell says, is going to be developed into a residential complex with 800 new apartments. Those tenants are going to want a place to hang out and where everyone knows ... well, you get the idea.
The Beacon will serve lunch, dinner, and Saturday and Sunday brunch, Pell says. The dinner menu will feature a wide array of sandwiches and salads, and the entree list includes a grilled Angus steak, eggplant parmesan, a grilled double-cut pork chop, and fish and chips. The restaurant is tentatively scheduled to open April 15. Pell will begin hiring serving staff in two weeks.