Dining Al Fresco

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Story by Dave Eckert, @eatsanddrinkswithdave
Intro photo courtesy of Cultivare, by Nam Cu

With cooler temps in the air and people still being reticent to dine indoors, outdoor dining while social distancing offers an option many customers have embraced. Dining al fresco has provided a lifeline to many area restaurants and the fortune for Kansas Citians to partake in the delicious foods the town has to offer. I visited with a number of eateries in the Kansas City metro to see how they’re providing diners quality restaurant experiences on their decks, patios, and rooftops.

Perhaps the most creative of pivots was orchestrated by the recently rebranded American Reserve Restaurant at The Ambassador Hotel a few blocks north of T-Mobile Center. There, Food and Beverage Director Eric Willey converted a parking garage into an outdoor dining and entertainment center. The space, open for what Willey calls “dinner and a show,” has been wildly popular. “We call it the Urban Oasis! People will be walking down the street and they’ll hear music coming from the garage and they’ll look in to see what’s going on, and they’ll be like, ‘Wow, that’s really cool,’” Willey shared.

Photo courtesy of Affäre

Open on Friday and Saturday nights, the “Garage Al Fresco” experience, where reservations are required, routinely sells out. It helps that Willey has booked the ever popular and equally talented Lonnie McFadden to perform on Saturdays, but the concept really sells itself. All it took was some thinking outside the box from Willey and about $200 worth of string lighting and some table decorations. They added some ceiling fans to help cool the space and keep the air circulating. Everything else came from the hotel. “It’s been incredibly successful. During these times, we have to think outside the box and come up with new business models,” Willey said.

Imagine introducing not just a new business model but an entirely new business during the pandemic – that’s what Kasim Hardaway and Kerry Goebel did with the opening of their new fast-casual restaurant Cultivare in South Overland Park. The partners were convinced their concept could succeed with a combination of carry-out and al fresco dining. They admit there are many challenges, posed by both Covid-19 and outdoor dining, but having outdoor space is making a difference. “We are all about fresh, local produce and flavorful combinations of ingredients and sauces in our dishes. What better way to highlight this than with a dining experience in the open air surrounded by greenery? I think our menu begs to be enjoyed outdoors, and with a large patio, we can certainly make that happen,” Goebel offered.

Photo courtesy of Fox and Pearl, by Pilsen Photo Co-op

Affare restaurant in the Crossroads boasts one of my favorite dining rooms in the city, but these days, it’s all about their courtyard. “We really love our little courtyard oasis. It’s right in the middle of downtown, but also secluded. When you are sitting in it you can hear the city noises, but you don’t see what’s making them. During the pandemic, it’s the place we feel most comfortable serving guests,” Katrin Heuser, co-owner and sommelier shared.

You’ll hear similar sentiments at Fox and Pearl just off Southwest Boulevard on Summit Street. “Outdoor seating just makes the most sense for most diners. We are fortunate enough to have a decent size patio, but with social distancing, it fills up very quickly. Allowing restaurants to utilize sidewalks and parking lots for service is a game changer for many places. It also is allowing for some interesting opportunities in dining experiences that we wouldn’t have otherwise.” Kristine Hull, co-owner, events manager, and designer stated.

Photo courtesy of Ignite Wood Fire Grill

Finally, I ventured to Ignite Wood Fire Grill on 87th Street in Lenexa’s City Center development. There, chef Bradley Gilmore seems to have as much outdoor space as anyone in the city. Gilmore says he can accommodate up to 150 diners, even with social distancing. Gilmore says that is huge during these trying times. “We’re doing all sorts of special events in our outdoor spaces like barbecues and shrimp boils, and they’ve all been huge successes. We couldn’t do any of that without our outdoor spaces. It’s been a lifesaver,” Gilmore said.

Another successful restaurant pandemic prompted pivot!

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