Blast that destroyed JJ’s also leaves a hole in KC’s culture

11/22/2013 9:50 AM

05/16/2014 9:13 PM

To some people who know anything about wine, JJ’s, the edge-of-the-Plaza restaurant leveled by a gas explosion Tuesday evening, had the best and deepest list in town.

To others, JJ’s was a white-tablecloth dining room for special events, power lunches, tender steaks and sumptuous seafood.

In the evenings, the JJ’s bar was a casual and convivial watering hole that, despite its higher-toned wrappings, felt like neighborhood taverns everywhere. Its kitchen made a fine daily pizza. It served lawyers and bankers, judges and real estate developers, designers and young professionals and even the odd writer or two (guilty!).

With its glass shelves of liquor, its formidable collection of vintage ports, jaunty paintings on the walls by Mike Savage and a non-trendy ethos, JJ’s was a down-to-earth place that felt like a hideaway. Late at night, with its 3 a.m. license, it became a wind-down destination for restaurant and bar employees whose places on the Plaza or Westport had closed for the night.

JJ’s regulars watched neighbors walk their dogs and stop for treats and water, which was always available at the restaurant’s door. For the last eight years or so they also watched the excruciating evolution of an office building project: It rose out of the ground, stood unfinished, was demolished and redesigned and remains under construction barely 50 feet away, across 48th Street.

As with neighborhood bars all over town, or London pubs or the TV template of Cheers, a sense of family imbued the place. Employees cared about and looked after one another. At the St. Luke’s Hospital emergency room Tuesday night, employees, friends and family of injured staffers waited for news and hoped for the best. A sense of gloom hovered in the room as they knew that not every one of their colleagues was accounted for.

Now, after the trauma of Tuesday night, they’ll also wake up to the realization that they are without jobs. As it has in the past, Kansas City’s restaurant community will likely come to their aid.

JJ’s had a wide reputation for its wine list. It served wine makers from all over. Travelers sought the place out. As did the occasional celebrity. Neil Young dropped by one recent summer evening, and some employees will never forget a long, entertaining night after last year’s All Star game with Charlie Sheen.

The local wine world has taken a big hit. You could buy a bottle of Argentinian Malbec for $18 or spend $3,500 on one of the great burgundies. Thousands of bottles in multiple cellars are now lost, many of them irreplaceable. In a casual conversation last year with an insider, it became possible to imagine a value of JJ’s cellar well into the six figures, even seven.

Owner Jimmy Frantze’s favorite is a sparkling rosé, a Bouvet Tresor from the Loire Valley of France. Frantze frequently made a show of it when customers called for a fine champagne to be opened, outdoors, with the strike of a saber. He’s a magnetic restaurateur and bar man, and now a grieving one.

It was encouraging to hear Frantze’s brother, David, assert that JJ’s would rebuild on the spot. Encouraging, but much uncertainty remains.

There is a hole in the ground. There are holes in many hearts. There is healing to be done. There will be mourning.

And tonight, as some people gather somewhere else for their after-work rituals, there will be stories shared and heartfelt embraces and glasses raised in grief.

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