It's better than the IMAX! And since yet another upscale steakhouse, the Capital Grille, has been getting ready to throw open its doors (see Mouthing Off), I thought it was time to visit an old standby. Benton's hasn't changed a bit since it replaced Top of the Crown, a quasi-French restaurant, more than sixteen years ago. An old Top of the Crown menu reveals that it had more or less been a steakhouse too, with châteaubriand, pepper steak, prime rib and Filet Mignon Cafe de Paris offered alongside Supreme of Chicken Gourmet. Along with the name Benton's -- for Thomas Hart Benton, the gruff and virile Kansas City painter -- came a more robust menu, with eight cuts of beef, a few seafood choices, a pricey Australian lobster tail and a plebian chicken breast dish that lost more than a fancy name when it was demoted from "gourmet" to simply "grilled."
Benton's etchings and sketches are scattered throughout the restaurant, which still sports the rose-colored carpet, earth-toned walls, mirrors and brass railings it's had since Ronald Reagan was in the White House. I'm not knocking it -- there's something comforting about eating in a place where things stay the same. In fact, the restaurant's regulars howl if there's even the smallest change. Several years ago, the Benton's management decided to lower prices and eliminate the porcelain bucket of cold "peel your own" shrimp that's served with dinner. "Our customers threw a fit, and we went back to the old way of doing things," says the restaurant's manager, Todd Neff.
The old way still means that each dinner is a package deal, including the shrimp, a basket of breads, a salad prepared tableside, a medley of vegetables and either a fat baked potato or a Benton's Potato, a layered, deep-dish concoction baked with cheese. Benton's isn't as polished as other steakhouses, like Morton's of Chicago (just across the street), and the prices may seem high at first glance. But when real restaurant pros -- such as Connie Drury and Georgianna Jones, who have been working the room since the 1970s -- bring out that much food, the place starts to look like a bargain.
On one visit, I arrived for dinner far earlier than I expected. My companion, Lesa, was on a weight-loss eating schedule that demanded she be finished with dinner by 6:30 p.m., so we were at a table, napkins in our laps, at 5:30 sharp. How was I to know that was the best time, during the early spring, to get a breathtaking view of a Kansas City sunset? We could see the northern span of the city, stretching from Kansas City, Kansas, to North Kansas City, with the downtown skyline in between. We saw things we'd never noticed before -- but by that point we were preoccupied with an appetizer of fried calamari rings, which we dipped into an avocado-colored sauce made with wasabi, the grated root of an Asian plant with the sting and snort of horseradish. Though the sauce had been toned down, it still had enough bite to give the overly chewy squid some punch.