Chow Town

Recapturing the energy at La Bodega

Updated: 2014-01-29T23:40:03Z

By DAVE ECKERT

I visited with James Taylor over lunch recently. No, not the “Fire and Rain” James Taylor, but the Kansas City restaurateur James Taylor, a man with his fingers in a lot of area pies.

In 1993, Taylor founded and operated KC Hopps, opening 75th Street Brewery, River Market Brewery and Main Street Brewery. He opened La Bodega on Southwest Boulevard in 1998. And in 2001, he opened re:Verse and the Red Room on the County Club Plaza. He opened a second La Bodega in Leawood in the fall of 2010.

He’s also an operational partner in Grinders Pizza and Grinders West Upscale Deli in the Crossroads. As I said, fingers in a lot of pies.

However, on this day, Taylor and I were focusing on just one of his ventures, the original La Bodega, which turned 15 years old last year. That’s a long run in the restaurant business, but factor in massive construction, smash and grab robberies and violence stemming from a nightclub across the street that catered to groups that don’t generally like each other and you’ve got a recipe for disaster, not success.

Still, here he was, a little under the weather, but the proud owner of a restaurant he’s in the midst of re-introducing to Kansas City.

“We want to clean it up and let everybody know it’s back,” Taylor said. “I think it’s time. We have all these people with all of these memories, people who’ve had special nights and special dates here. We just need to recapture that magic.”

Taylor admits La Bodega has gone through some tough times, most of them out of the restaurant’s and Taylor’s control. There were the aforementioned robberies where car windows were smashed and possessions stolen right in front of the restaurant. The culprits have since been caught.

There was the nightclub that blared music until all hours of the night while attracting some unsavory characters. The night club is gone. Finally, the construction, with jackhammering on Interstate 35, adjacent to and above an area Taylor wants to open as a patio. Thankfully, the construction has come to a merciful end.

One thing that hasn’t ended, and in fact, has really ramped up, is the competition. When La Bodega first opened on the Boulevard, there were but a handful of restaurants in the area.

Now, by Taylor’s count, there are 52. Still, with a revamped menu for both lunch and dinner, authentic Spanish ingredients incorporated into both long-time favorites and new dishes with a twist and an explosion of excellent Spanish wine coming into the market, Taylor is optimistic about the future.

“I’m not surprised we made it 15 years — I’m grateful,” he said. “I have a lot of great people who worked for me through the years. Now, we need to get a new generation here. We need to get the energy back.”

I, for one, am not going to bet against him. The room is already lighter and brighter than it used to be. The food is brighter too. Taylor has brought a more traditional feel to his lunch offerings. There are more sandwiches, salads and a selection of what they call pizzettas — kind of a Spanish flat bread with really interesting combinations.

There’s also a Tapas Del Dia, a combination platter with a little tapas, a starch, some salad and a couple of tostadas. It’s the kind of lunch that’s pretty standard in Spain and it works here too, giving diners a nice sampling on one plate at one price.

Of course, you always have the options of order cold or hot tapa, but this gives customers more choices and more control.

“We’re also adding a few entrees to the dinner menu,” Taylor said. “We’re going to have a double-cut chop, that’s going to be just awesome. The idea is to stick to authentic Spanish ingredients, but be creative in the way we put them together in crafting our dishes.”

The restaurant business has been in Taylor’s blood since he worked as a bus boy starting at the age of 14. He waited tables and tended bar while attending college at universities of Kansas and Oklahoma and has been interested in food since cooking with his grandmother while watching the Galloping Gourmet.

Studying Spanish during his formative years and growing up with a dad who was an architect and a mom who was an art major, both of whom appreciate the Spanish contributions to their fields, Taylor said he was always attracted to Spanish culture. But really got the hook put in him when he went to Barcelona for the 1992 Summer Olympics.

“That was crazy, and the food was amazing.”

Little did he know that six years later he’d be offering up some of the same dishes he had in Barcelona in his hometown of Kansas City at his own restaurant. Now that restaurant is poised to make a strong second run. La Bodega — 15 years and counting.

Dave Eckert is the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS-TV and Wealth TV for 12 seasons, or nearly 300 half-hour episodes produced on six continents. Eckert is also an avid wine collector and aficionado, having amassed a personal wine cellar of some 2,000 bottles.

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