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Chefs know where the good values are for eating on the cheap

The Kansas City Star

There are no white tablecloths in Swagger. There are no sautéed veal sweetbread appetizers or thyme roasted diver scallop entrees. The most exotic menu item is the Suribachi burger — tempura Angus beef with wasabi coleslaw ($9.95).

But when Charles d’Ablaing, executive chef of the Webster House restaurant, wants to fill a craving without emptying his wallet, Swagger is one of the places he likes to go.

Like anyone else, Kansas City’s top chefs sometimes want something really, really good to eat at a place that is going to be quick, casual and — let’s say it — cheap.

The happy hours or bar fare for their own restaurants can be a great value, but top chefs also agree that many places have great food that is inexpensive. Many suggestions involve ethnic cuisine. Almost all of the places mentioned are locally owned.

The chefs we talked to — from d’Ablaing to Jennifer Maloney (Café Sebastienne) to Jonathan Justus of the celebrated Justus Drugstore: A Restaurant — said the places they return to time and again generally emphasize fresh, flavorful foods that set them above similar places.

Executive chef Charles d’Ablaing

Webster House

1644 Wyandotte


One of the things d’Ablaing appreciates about Swagger is how the former Village Lounge in Waldo has set itself apart from the competition.

His friend Derek Boone, owner of Irezumi Tattoo, bought and transformed the space. It is still a neighborhood bar, but Boone hired some chefs who make things such as mayonnaise and barbecue sauces from scratch, and Boone smokes the restaurant’s meats.

“Whoever goes there is going to see there is such a difference in what he is doing with bar food and what anybody else is doing,” d’Ablaing said. “There is actually some thought, and he really cares about it, and there is a love of the food.

“He does his Cuban as a Fidel Castro ($8.95) and smokes all of the pork shoulder himself. He competes at the American Royal, so if he has anything smoked or barbecued on the menu, it’s going to be pretty good. And it is just an interesting place to go.”

Executive chef Jennifer Maloney

Café Sebastienne at the Kemper Museum

4420 Warwick Blvd.


Lucia’s Restaurant, a small Mexican place on U.S. 24 in Independence, fills the simple-eats bill for Maloney, who has been executive chef at the museum’s casual but elegant Café Sebastienne for 14 years.

“We usually go a couple of times a month, just for lunch or an early dinner,” said Maloney, who lives in Independence. “It is not cheap cheap, but it is a really good value. You get a lot of food. They sell, like, big tacos platters to go ($8.75).

“I don’t know what it is, the grease or the salt, whatever, but it is really good. If you get there around 5 p.m., you have to wait outside because you can’t get in.”

When she craves a burger, Maloney will hit the Independence institution HiBoy Drive-In. There are three.

“They have really, really good burgers and excellent onion rings,” she said. “They are battered, and they are thick. They make everything fresh there.”

And if it is a cheap breakfast she wants, she suggests Cascone’s Grill by the City Market.

Executive chef Michael Smith, manager Nancy Smith

Michael Smith and Extra Virgin

1900 Main St.


Smith, who has been nominated for the James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Chef award, is the executive chef of his namesake Michael Smith in the Crossroads.

He and his wife and restaurant manager, Nancy Smith, also own the new Extra Virgin small-plates restaurant next door.

And while they mostly eat at their own restaurants, when they do eat out, it’s comfort that draws them, not comfort food.

“We may go just because we feel comfortable going there and know somebody,” Michael Smith said. “But generally it is a style of food that isn’t what we normally eat. It is a taste profile. You want something zesty, tasty. I am not a braised roast in the oven with carrots and potatoes guy at all. That is the last thing I want to eat, even in the hearty winter. I always want something interesting.”

For them that might mean a plate of prosciutto and olives or the $4 plate of grilled peppers with olives and capers roasted peppers from La Cucina di Mamma in Brookside.

They like the flavors at Po’s Dumpling Bar on 39th Street and Arun Thai Place Grill at Seventh and Walnut streets near City Market.

The couple occasionally goes to P.F. Chang’s China Bistro on the Plaza “because they have a great wonton soup. But generally we support (locally owned) places.”

Chefs/owners Colby and Megan Garrelts


900 Westport Road


The Garrelts have a list of inexpensive favorites as long and varied as the menu at their Bluestem restaurant, which was recently nominated in the Best Chef: Midwest Category by the James Beard Foundation.

“That is one thing nice about Kansas City,” Colby Garrelts said. “There are a huge amount of restaurants that are price-friendly.”

What the two look for are places where “there is an honesty to what they do, something to embrace.”

They start with Stroud’s but mention Quick’s Bar-B-Q in Kansas City, Kan., and Arthur Bryant’s, too. For pizza, it’s Pizza Bella in the Crossroads and Pizza 51 in Brookside.

For burgers they like Blanc Burgers + Bottles on Westport Road, where gourmet burgers run from $8 to $12, or even the Flea Market.

For breakfast it is Room 39 and Café Europa, places that are a bit pricier but mentioned by several chefs for the value. At Room 39 a three-egg omelet runs $8 while Sunday brunch at Café Europa can run from $10 to $20 if you get a mimosa or Bloody Mary.

“Since Andy (Atterbury) and Nathan (Feldmiller) have taken over Café Europa, they are busy, busy busy,” Colby Garrelts said. “It has a lot to do with price point and value. They are selling a great product and undercharging.”

Chef/owners Jonathan Justus and Camille Eklof

Justus Drugstore: A Restaurant

106 W. Main St., Smithville


Jonathan Justus and Camille Eklof’s highly regarded Smithville restaurant is open six days a week. The off day is Monday, and the couple’s favorite place to go that night is JP Wine Bar & Coffee House in downtown Kansas City.

It has two happy hour sessions. The early specials are from 4 to 6 p.m., but it is the 10 p.m. to midnight slot that Justus and Eklof hit.

“They have these $5 plates, and I usually get mussels and truffled french fries. It’s $10, and I think it’s a great deal,” Justus said. “The other reason we go on Monday night is much of their wine list is 50 percent off.

“So we will go get a bottle of Champagne and for a very, very reasonable price. So you get this total French moules and pommes frites for $10, and a bottle of Champagne. It is quite a deal.”

For another take, Justus says his chef de cuisine, Jeff Scott, formerly of Zin, will drive from Roeland Park to the Wasahi Japanese Steak House and Sushi Bar on North Oak.

“He says skip the hot food and go for the sushi,” Justus said.

Chef/owner John McClure

Starker’s Restaurant

201 W. 47th St.


When McClure is looking for eating places that are kind to his cash flow, he is often drawn to ethnic foods, particularly the Latin flavors from small places around the city.

“I think I speak for most chefs, but we love ethnic foods,” McClure said.

For a quick bite, McClure likes the Cancun Fiesta Fresh restaurant in Westport (which was featured in Derek Donovan’s “A Taste of Mexico” story in the March 6 Preview).

Then there’s a place out in Johnson County, but “I cannot for the life of me think of the name of it. It is an El Salvadorian restaurant (El Pulgarcito) just off of Johnson Drive, just west of I-35,” McClure said. “They have pupusas (thick, corn tortillas) out there. Every once in a while I will drive out there and grab a bunch of pupusas for lunch for all of the guys in this kitchen.”

Another favorite of McClure’s is the former Café Venezuela, now Café Rice & Beans, near Seventh Street and Central Avenue in Kansas City, Kan.

“They have Venezuelan food, but generally speaking it is South American, and it is very good,” he said.

The café is a small place with a counter and just a few tables. It also has a lot of Cuban food because Jorge Manan, whose Cuban Café used to occupy the spot, is involved in the café again.

“Probably the place I frequent the most, because is kind of a hang out and because of the location, is JJs, where I will sit at the bar,” McClure said. “I love their pizza. They do a different pizza every day. I’ll grab a beer or a glass of wine and a pie and it’s very affordable.”

In the growing season, when he is going to the City Market for fresh produce, McClure might get pancakes at Succotash ($6.75 for two pancakes and bacon) or the Vietnam Café in nearby Columbus Park.

McClure says price is not the first thing he thinks about when he is choosing where to go, but “there are so many great places that have great food that aren’t expensive. That’s a huge thing.”

McClure hesitated before making an admission about another place he’s learned to like.

“I’ll be really honest … for the bang for the buck, I like Jimmy Johns,” he said, referring to the national chain with several locations in the area.

“I like their sandwiches. And they are so fast. When we weren’t open for lunch, we would come in and be hungry and whatnot.

“We would order for them to deliver, even though were just five blocks from there, and it was faster for us to order and have them deliver than for us to drive over there. It was ridiculous.”

Large succor, little lucre
Here is a list of some, certainly not all, of the mostly inexpensive restaurants our small list of revered chefs go to. (Things can change, so always check hours or specials before you go.)


8431 Wornall Road

11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday 816-361-4388

•You Say Tomato

2801 Holmes St.

7 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday


•Lucia’s Restaurant

641 East U.S. 24, Independence

11 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday-Saturday

816- 252-0762

•Hi Boy

3424 S. Blue Ridge Cutoff

10:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday

10:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday

924 West U.S. 24, Independence


•Po’s Dumpling Bar

1715 W. 39th St.

11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday

Noon-10:30 p.m. Saturday; noon-9 p.m. Sunday


•Arun Thai Place Grill

100 E. Seventh St.

11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-9 p.m. Monday-Friday (11 p.m. on Fridays)

5-11 p.m. Saturday

816- 472-8424

•La Cucina di Mamma

6227 Brookside Blvd.

11 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday-Saturday


•Quick’s Bar-B-Q & Catering Co.

1007 Merriam Lane, Kansas City, Kan.

11 a.m.-2 p.m. Mondays; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays


•Pizza Bella

1810 Baltimore Ave.

Lunch: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday- Friday

Dinner: 4-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 4-midnight Friday; noon-midnight Saturday; noon-9 p.m. Sunday


•Pizza 51

5060 Oak St.

11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday

11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday


•Blanc Burger + Bottles

419 Westport Road

11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday

11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday

11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday


•Room 39

1719 W. 39th St.

Breakfast: 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Saturday

Lunch: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Saturday

Dinner: 5:30-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday


•Café Europa

323 E. 55th St.

Lunch: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday

Dinner: 5:30-10 p.m.

Sunday brunch: 10 a.m.-2 p.m.


•JP Wine Bar

1526 Walnut

4 p.m.-1:30 a.m. Monday-Saturday


•Wasahi Japanese Steak House

328 N.E. 72nd St.

4:30-10:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday

4-9 p.m. Sunday


•Cancun Fiesta Fresh

4019 Pennsylvania Ave.

11 a.m.-9 p.m. 816-756-2120

•Cafe Venezuela

719 Central Ave., KCK

11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Friday-Saturday


•El Pulgarcito

5921 Merriam Drive, Merriam

9 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday



15 E. Third St.

9 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday; 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday


•Vietnam Café

522 Campbell St.

9 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday


To reach Eric Palmer, call 816-234-4335 or send e-mail to

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