In 1985, the impressive new Vista International Hotel opened on 12th Street, the first new downtown Kansas City hotel in more than a decade. It sat on a notorious piece of property: a block-long stretch of trashy saloons and strip joints. The bars and clubs had been popular with convention visitors to the city (particularly during the 1976 Republican National Convention), but the locals saw the raucous neighborhood as seriously blighted, and it was bulldozed in 1982 to make way for the Vista.
Sadly, the Vista didn't last even as long as Mike's Pink Door, one of those old 12th Street favorites. By 1987, the name and management of the mammoth brick hotel had been replaced. The Pistilli family, former operators of the Alameda Plaza Hotel (and, until 2005, the Raphael Hotel), began overseeing the property.
When the Pistillis' Raphael Restaurant Group, known for its excellent food service, took over the running of the hotel, it immediately closed the Vista's upscale dining venue, the Harvest Room: "It was doing, maybe, six covers a night," Kevin Pistilli tells me. "We couldn't afford to keep it open." Pistilli and his sister, Cynthia Pistilli Savage, remain in charge of the hotel, which has been a Marriott (owned by a local business group) for 25 years.
Over that quarter century, the hotel has done without a good restaurant. There was a coffee shop, Lilly's, on the lobby level, but for years it was one of the worst hotel dining rooms in town, plagued by sullen service and unexceptional food — a head-scratcher given that the cuisine at both the Alameda Plaza and the Raphael Hotel was always extraordinary. In fact, the Alameda Plaza's Pam Pam Room pretty much set the local hotel standard for decades. What happened?
"During that period of time," Pistilli says, "people's expectations of dining in a hotel really changed. There was a time when a first-class hotel, like the Muehlebach in its heyday, had three different dining rooms. But hotel customers no longer stayed in to eat. The dining experience was outsourced to the community, even when Kansas City lacked a variety of good restaurants downtown. Guests would travel to Crown Center or the Plaza to eat instead of dining in the hotel.
"We're a convention hotel," Pistilli adds. "Our hotel-dining business is primarily breakfast and lunch. Dinner business is a bit more quiet." He pauses. "No, a lot more quiet."
A sad-sack space like Lilly's was for a long time good enough for those conventioneers. Then, suddenly, it wasn't. The Raphael Restaurant Group spent a lot of dough overhauling the hotel's lobby a couple of years ago, then turned its attention to Lilly's. "The restaurant was dated-looking," Pistilli says. "And the food was good. But we wanted to take it up a notch, to make it more accessible to our younger hotel guests, more contemporary. It's not a fine-dining restaurant. We're not Bluestem."
Last October, after a major renovation, the former Lilly's reopened as MetropolitanKC. And no, it isn't Bluestem, but it's the best thing to happen to this Marriott in 20 years. The room is classy and comfortable, the service friendly and attentive. Best of all, though, is the smart young chef named Vincent Paredes, who has elevated the food a great deal. MetropolitanKC is a restaurant worth dining in frequently if you spend your days downtown or near it.
The menu and the décor at the sunny, pretty MetropolitanKC aren't as sophisticated as what you'll find a few blocks away at the Reserve, in the new Ambassador Hotel, or as inspired as Providence, over in the nearby Hilton President. The prices are in line with that competition. A friend of mine was scandalized at having to fork over $10 for a plate of buttermilk pancakes, then remembered he was eating at a hotel. The place holds its own, and there are signs that it's going to continue improving.
For now, some of Paredes' concepts sound better than they taste. I'm recalling, for instance, the corn-flake-crusted "crunchy French toast." (Sliced bananas and strawberries saved the dish from banality.) Much better is a hash made with chunks of barbecue brisket, chopped spuds, peppers and runny poached eggs. It's an excellent dish, so rich that the hollandaise sauce is almost unnecessary. The three-egg omelet I tried was nearly as big as a football and tasted good, but I prefer Paredes' eggs Benedict, a top-notch version.
One afternoon in the dining room, I ran into a fussy downtown restaurateur, who insisted that I order the Reuben sandwich. It was outstanding, but I haven't craved it the way I've wished for more of the $15 lunch special that Paredes created for Restaurant Week: a gorgeous cup of parsnip-and-pear soup, perfectly complemented by a fluffy croque monsieur sandwich.
The kitchen's subtle sense of invention is evident in the barbecue salmon. The fish I tasted had a lightly crispy exterior and a moist, pink center, and the avocado relish blanketing it was just right. It came perched on a tasty mash of soothing cauliflower, which had none of the graininess that sometimes hinders the vegetable. It's a dish that's modern without being pushy about it.
There are, of course, steaks — tourists want Kansas City's signature dish. Paredes serves up a fine 12-ounce, wet-aged KC strip. (Vegetarians don't fare as well here and must cobble together a meal of side dishes or request that the rigatoni marinara be served without its veal meatballs.)
Like all modern hotel restaurants, MetropolitanKC has been designed for the building's paying guests. But for the first time, this room is a worthy destination for diners venturing downtown for a Sprint Center concert or a show at Quality Hill Playhouse or the Kauffman Center. It also serves late, by downtown standards, running till 11 p.m. I predict an alteration there, though, if too few locals are persuaded to give this dining room a chance. After all, to be a truly metropolitan venue, MetropolitanKC needs patrons from all over the metro.