Dining » Fat Mouth

Restaurants in Peace

Oldham and a few other stylish restaurants now have empty plates.


I was having dinner at the new Thai Place (see review) with friends one night when chef Tim Doolittle of the recently-closed Stolen Grill walked in. Doolittle, along with the rest of the staff at the five-year-old Stolen Grill, was abruptly given last call on June 20. We eagerly cornered him to find out the real story behind the demise of the second boutique restaurant in Westport (the first was Metropolis) to close unexpectedly this year.

"I was in the kitchen prepping for that night when I got a call that there was going to be a meeting," Doolittle said. "And we were all told the restaurant was going to shut down."

The party line is that the restaurant's owner, David Korbelik, is "pursuing other interests." Former employees at the restaurant told me they thought Korbelik was "bored with running a restaurant."

Another boutique restaurant owner, Nick McNeil of the recently closed Oldham, never got a chance to get bored: Oldham, which opened with a bang last summer, lasted only a year. There were many reasons the restaurant had such a struggle, McNeil says, not the least of which was the post-September 11 economy. "I think George Bush and his cronies have tried to fool the public that the economy is getting better, but the handwriting is on the wall," he says.

"And we haven't seen the last of it yet," McNeil continues. "I've talked to a few other restaurateurs who think the summer will kick in business a little bit, but you can only wonder. It's a very tough time to be in this business."

One of McNeil's biggest shocks was that the burgeoning downtown loft community didn't patronize his restaurant-nightclub as he had predicted.

"We never, ever became a destination point for that neighborhood," McNeil says. "Before we opened, I read the demographic studies of the area surrounding Oldham, and the people living downtown -- college-educated, well-traveled, sophisticated -- were exactly the customer base that we envisioned as we planned the restaurant."

But even McNeil's downtown supporters disappointed him. "A friend of mine who lived downtown said she was so sorry that Oldham had closed, but after work, she just wanted to kick back and have a beer and that my place was too fancy. She felt she would have had to be dressed up," he says.

"In Kansas City, there's a strange perception that contemporary design means formal," McNeil observes. "That's not true in other cities, but Kansas City hasn't made that next step." On too many occasions, he saw people look through the windows or open the front door to peek inside. "And they would say, 'Oh, it's too fancy and expensive.' I think, as design-savvy as I am, I was somewhat naïve in thinking what would and wouldn't go over here."

To add insult to injury, another restaurant that McNeil designed (but did not own) was the elegantly composed Mosaic Bistro in Prairie Village. After fifteen months, it also closed last spring. After the new owners ripped out all of McNeil's interior-design work, it reopened as the more plebian (and successful) Blue Moose Bar & Grill.

"I haven't seen what they've done," McNeil says somberly, "but I heard they gutted the place."

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