How do you recapture a restaurant that was as much an emotion as a location?
That is the challenge of the new JJ’s. The work is in good hands, with people who were dedicated to the old JJ’s.
Several months ago, owner Jimmy Frantze tasked a longtime friend with helping him rebuild not so much the literal space that is the work of the architects but what JJ’s had encompassed — what JJ’s meant to Frantze as an owner of nearly 30 years, to loyal staff as a place of employment, to regulars as a comfortable roosting spot, to connoisseurs for its world-class wine list and to Kansas City as an iconic, independent venue.
So on Wednesday, Jan Russell stood at the windows that will face out to the new JJ’s large patio and looked to the east as others viewed blueprints after the reopening was announced at a news conference. The view is what customers will see, the west side of the Country Club Plaza — specifically, the Robert Browning and Mark Twain apartment buildings, both decades-old brick structures with the charm and ornate facades that are representative of many buildings nearby.
From that vantage point, the contemporary style of JJ’s new home, the Plaza Vista office building, is complementary.
Russell has been trolling the depths of feelings about JJ’s. She listens while people describe what they remember: an archway, a piece of glass, an artwork, the spot where they preferred to sit. The beloved restaurant will reopen later this year mere feet from the old location, still-singed remains from the gas explosion and fire that leveled it 14 months ago and killed server Megan Cramer.
For continuity, the menu will start off being the same as on that last day. Frantze vows another “world-class wine list,” one that will be “almost identical” to what existed before.
“Obviously, some of our more precious little babies, some that we’d owned for 40 years, are no longer with us,” he acknowledged of the lost vintages.
But two off-site locations held much of the storied wine list. Managers Matt Nichols and Joe Avelluto have been painstakingly cataloging it, case by case, bottle by bottle, determining what was lost to the fire and what can be replaced or at least matched.
But ultimately it won’t only be a vintage of wine, nor the Italian and Napa-inspired cuisine that will lure customers. People make restaurants great. And many of those, be they owners, staff or customers, are eager to return to JJ’s.