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Flo’s ambitious menu might be a bigger draw than the drag shows

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Anyone who has ever worked the front of the house in a busy dining room knows that the restaurant business is a form of theater — sometimes high drama, sometimes opéra bouffe. And staff and customers alike are part of the show.

Flo's Cabaret, which opened in April in the former Bar Natasha space, takes this concept to a new level. It's not just a nightclub that serves food, or even dinner theater. It's something larger-than-life, like the joint's owner, "Flo," the brassy waitress persona of local drag celebrity John Koop. Koop may be the only restaurateur in town who starts his workday in male clothing and ends the night in stage makeup, a sassy wig and a dress. Well, let's just say he's definitely the only restaurateur who admits to doing that.

If Koop hadn't ventured, unsuccessfully, into the restaurant business two decades ago, there might never have been a Flo. At age 21, with braces still on his teeth, Koop opened a restaurant called The Bridge at 39th Street and Main. When his dinner business began to falter, Koop started serving late-night breakfast to the after-bar crowd and created the character of a snappy, hilariously rude waitress to entertain the customers. The character proved to be a lot more popular than the restaurant. After The Bridge closed, Koop took his show on the road, playing Flo at gay clubs for the next 20 years.

No matter how you feel about the iconoclastic Koop, in or out of drag, the guy has always been ambitious. His latest venture, Flo's Cabaret, reflects this. It wasn't enough to create a 1950s-style "show bar." (Few people, myself included, can remember the old "world famous" Jewel Box Lounge on Troost, but that was one of Koop's inspirations.) But his place had to be a real restaurant, too. That's why Koop hired Sean Leventhal, the talented young chef formerly of One80 in Westport. Leventhal's menu, a surprisingly sophisticated array of starters, sandwiches and entrées, is as ambitious as everything else about Flo's Cabaret.

My fear is that it might be too ambitious for this particular venue, the patrons and the neighborhood, though I'll go out on a limb and say it's not. I have friends who disagree with me. Flo's Cabaret is not for every taste, but neither was Bar Natasha, the cabaret-style nightspot that actress and director Missy Koonce previously operated in this spot. The two places are decidedly different, just like the public personalities of Koop and Koonce.

Koop's redesign of the venue is more in keeping with a traditional nightclub. He moved the stage from the center to the north side of the room and seriously improved acoustics by carpeting the space (in flamboyant leopard print, naturally) and cloaking the tables in dark linen. It feels a lot friendlier than Bar Natasha. The serving staff is practically bubbling over with enthusiasm — a couple of the featured performers wait tables, though they don't actually haul out the food in female garb (as the servers did at a short-lived, 1980s midtown bistro called Sarah Crankankles). And they're happy to tell you about their onstage personas.

On the night I dined with my friend Steve, we were fussed over by Cory, who slips into something more feminine for the 10 p.m. show. "My stage name," he told us, "is Raven Waye."

He was delivering a hummus platter just as two statuesque females with extraordinarily large breasts walked past our table. They were wearing long formal gowns.

"They're very famous porno stars," Cory whispered. "Mia and Courtney. They've been in transsexual movies like, I think, Chicks With Dicks 2."

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