Who hasn’t, for even the briefest moment, imagined owning their own food and drink establishment? Fancy fine dining, just like that little spot in Paris. A shot-slinging extension of the frat house, where—god help you—everybody knows your name. A little boutique B&B where your friends and a few well-heeled sophisticates blather over how “mahhrvelous” everything is. Or even a little diner with honest food and patrons who come to restore themselves.
The all-American restaurant dream doesn’t necessarily unfold like most folks imagine. But the best restaurants and restaurateurs have one thing in common: they constantly evolve, reinventing their concepts and themselves, when necessary, to achieve success. All of my Bites this month have a little bit of this in common.
Let’s start with Happy Gillis in Columbus Park. It began as a breakfast, soup and sandwich shop in an awkward location, successful enough to inspire the owner Todd Schulte and his wife, Tracy Zinn, to open a second but not identical bistro in the West Bottoms. The Columbus Park location was recently sold to chef Josh Eans, former sous chef at The American Restaurant, and his wife, Abbey-Jo. I can’t wait to see what happens.
They always loved the vibe at Happy Gillis, enough to make it their own. With three kids in tow, they’ve moved into the space above the restaurant and are slowly tweaking the concept to make it even more successful. Just how this sophisticated but savvy couple will prune and tend this quaint little spot is subject to debate, but bringing bread production in-house and making the menu even more seasonal and fresh are just a few of the many tiny changes we’re bound to see in the next chapter of Happy Gillis. 549 Gillis St., 816-471-3663
Next stop is The Belfry (as in “bats in”) at 16th St. and Grand Blvd. Stage three in local celebrity chef Celina Tio’s culinary takeover is another concept evolving to fit the neighborhood and its requirements. I’ve already forgotten what occupied the space originally, but Tio’s Collection restaurant (based loosely on a childhood boarding school experience) has now expanded to include a seriously sophisticated beer-centric pub-like space catering to those with more than a little working knowledge of fermented grains.
If that seems like too much, the Belfry is homey and fun, and you might even taste a little snack prepared by chef Tio herself right behind the bar. If I were a writer for The Star, working just across the street, I would live at the Belfry. Most writers drink too much and spend too much time alone anyway, and Wi-Fi at the Belfry is free. 1532 Grand Blvd. (entrance on 16th St.), 816-471-7111
Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler
Another example of redefining a concept is Lagniappe, the latest incarnation of chef Bryan Merker’s restaurant formerly known as Nica’s 320, a New Orleans-Inspired Cajun Kitchen. The interior is much the same as when it was Nica’s—dark but not too dark, lively but not too lively, a place comfortable for one or for a group. A few of the most successful dishes from Nica’s have migrated into the new concept. But Merker’s concept has taken the best of the good and added to what worked. Sounds smart. Lagniappe is a laid-back, fun-to-visit, good way to launch-your-evening sort of place that couldn’t help but leave you with a smile. Happy hour deals are first-rate.
At my server Chris’ suggestion I ordered a bowl of steaming gumbo that was the perfect foil for our snow-filled afternoon. Chunks of chicken and andouille sausage, tiny little shrimps and crawfish bits (shells included), all in a velvety and spicy soup that was comforting and invigorating all at the same time.
Going with the 19th-century New Orleans theme, I ordered an absinthe, served from a fancy little absinthe fountain where drops of ice water slowly dissolve a sugar cube into your absinthe, bringing the flavors and level of alcohol to the ideal level. The absinthe helps with snowy afternoons almost as well as gumbo.
But first and foremost, the host and bartender made my visit. They were as warm and welcoming as the Deep South, and I was reminded how nice it feels when someone makes you feel genuinely welcome in a new place. I know where I’m going to spend my Mardi Gras this year! 320 Southwest Blvd., 816-471-2900