‘From the ashes,’ JJ’s restaurant will come back in Plaza Vista building

04/23/2014 10:40 PM

04/23/2014 10:53 PM

For eight years, JJ’s restaurant stood in the shadows of a massive construction project just across the street.

Then, as the construction activity was about to end, the popular restaurant near the Country Club Plaza blew up. A natural-gas leak caused a fiery explosion that killed one restaurant worker and injured others.

On Wednesday, JJ’s owners — brothers Jimmy and David Frantze — announced they will reopen in late summer on the very development site that caused them so much grief.

“Ironic isn’t the word for it. We’ll have to come up with another word,” Jimmy Frantze said at a news conference. “But JJ’s is back.”

The Frantzes are leasing 4,800 square feet just off the lobby of the Plaza Vista office building at 900 W. 48th Place. JJ’s also will have a 1,600-square-foot patio along Roanoke Parkway.

“We’re coming back from the ashes,” Jimmy Frantze said. “I’m ready to go to work. I miss the business; I miss the people.”

In the months after the February 2013 explosion, some area restaurateurs had advised the brothers to cash the insurance checks, ease into retirement and give up on reopening. While the brothers considered that, they also looked at rebuilding on the original site until bids came in that they said were “insanely expensive.”

They also looked at other spots in and around the Plaza, but there were always downsides.

Then JJ’s fans at the Polsinelli law firm suggested the Plaza Vista — the renamed development project formerly known as the West Edge, across the street from JJ’s original location. Polsinelli recently moved its headquarters, and 450 of its employees, to the 10-story tower.

Financial services firm Waddell Reed will join JJ’s on the lobby level, opening a 15-person branch office in August. Also part of the development is the new 132-room Hotel Sorella. Colorado-based Jax Fish House Oyster Bar also plans an August opening there, its first restaurant outside its home state.

JJ’s opened in 1985 at 910 W. 48th St., a couple of blocks outside the Plaza’s western edge. It built a loyal following for its upscale menu, award-winning wine list and lively bar, which overlooked an elegant restaurant. Its staff members considered themselves a family.

“JJ’s is almost a dying breed,” said Jim Ligon, who was a part-time JJ’s bartender for five years. “There is so much corporate stuff now, but Jimmy is the little guy, the old-school restaurateur.”

Jimmy Frantze also needed a heavy dose of patience to survive the daily grind of running the restaurant amid all the construction distractions.

The ill-fated West Edge project caused traffic tangles, blocked off parking spaces and curtailed access to the restaurant. Then new developers tore the project down to put up the Plaza Vista.

JJ’s owners waited it all out, even as they saw sales drop 40 percent as many customers avoided the area.

Then, on Feb. 19, 2013, the devastating explosion killed server Megan Cramer, injured 15 and destroyed the building.

Ten lawsuits have been filed so far, and more are expected. Plaintiffs include JJ’s, Cramer’s parents and some of the people who were injured that day or whose property was damaged.

The defendants vary among the lawsuits but include Missouri Gas Energy and an MGE employee who was on the scene that day; Heartland Midwest LLC, the drilling contractor working for fellow defendant Time Warner Cable; and the company that MGE and other utilities hired to mark the location of the gas line that was hit, USIC Locating Services Inc.

The first of those trials is not set to begin until the summer of 2015, and it could be years before all the litigation is settled.

In early February, state utility regulators filed a complaint against Missouri Gas Energy alleging the company’

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employees failed to follow safety procedures in the minutes leading up to the fatal explosion. MGE has said it plans to challenge the regulatory complaint.

The Frantzes have spent much of the time since the explosion dealing with insurance issues and cleaning up the site.

The only remnants of the original JJ’s are a corner of the brick facade and a patch of tile in the front entryway at 48th Street and Belleview Avenue. The brothers also own the land but haven’t decided on what they will do with the site. Two surrounding buildings damaged by the explosion have yet to be repaired.

As for the new JJ’s, it will be designed by Kansas City-based 360 Architecture. The dining room will be on the south side, the bar area on the north. The bar will have a long mural by Kansas City artist Mike Savage, who did the artwork for the original JJ’s as well as a colorful street mural that helped to block diners’ view of the construction site.

JJ’s will serve the same menu, at least at first, Jimmy Frantze said, and he is rebuilding his renowned wine list.

At Wednesday’s news conference, Mayor Sly James, a patron of JJ’s, said it was known for “good food, good company, good times, good wine, good scotch, and good discounts on Saturday nights.”

Other longtime JJ’s customers have gathered each week at nearby restaurants as they waited for JJ’s return.

Polsinelli attorney Greg Bentz, who has been a JJ’s regular since it opened, said: “I’m thrilled. It will just be an elevator ride away.”

About 90 percent of JJ’s 35 former employees plan to return, including Ligon, who will pick up his old Wednesday and Thursday night bartender shifts.

“I can’t wait,” he said. “I just miss everyone so much. It wasn’t like someone just quit; we all got splintered.”

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