The restaurant wasn’t there, but its admirers were.
Former customers and employees of JJ’s gathered on and outside the site of the former restaurant just west of the Country Club Plaza on Sunday to honor its past and — they hope — its future.
“Thanks to all of you,” co-owner Jimmy Frantze announced not far from the restaurant’s former front door.
“Welcome to what was JJ’s and still is JJ’s.”
A Feb. 19 explosion and fire, following the breach of a natural-gas line by a work crew, destroyed the restaurant. One employee died and at least 14 people were injured.
Sunday’s street party in observance of JJ’s 281/2-year anniversary went forward regardless. While the restaurant’s anniversary is in February, the party for several years has been held in August because of the weather.
Customers on Sunday bought drinks and barbecue at separate spots on the restaurant’s former floor.
“It’s kind of surreal,” former JJ’s manager Matt Nichols said.
“I’ve been back here several times before this, but it’s great to see life here again. I was in the business for 37 years, and this was the most tight-knit group I ever had worked with.”
While no former employees wanted to speak in detail about the explosion, citing pending litigation, several described their affection for the restaurant and their eagerness to help with Sunday’s event.
“It’s just a celebration of everything that JJ’s stood for and an outpouring of support from community to the staff,” former employee Lindsay Simmons said.
Frantze said about 40 former employees attended or helped out.
“This is more like a reunion,” Frantze said. “But it’s also a celebration of this town that has been so good to us.”
Frantze greeted guests wearing a white T-shirt bearing the words “Don’t Ask.” Frantze, who owns the restaurant along with his brother David, is still considering whether to rebuild the restaurant at 910 W. 48th St. or move to another location.
The crowd included many longtime customers, such as Michael Saunders and Laura Clark. Married several months ago, they said they had conducted much of their courtship at JJ’s.
“It felt like home being there,” Saunders said.
Kansas City Mayor Sly James said he had been a JJ’s patron for decades.
James called Sunday’s celebration an example of the “resilience” Kansas City is known for.
“Now this looks a lot like an art gallery.”
Customers on Sunday bid on 11 large sections of a mural that before the explosion had been installed just across 48th Street during the construction of a high-rise office project.
Artist Mike Savage recalled that JJ’s had served as an unofficial gallery space for him when he was starting out.
Half of the proceeds from Sunday’s silent auction, Frantze said, would go to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. The other half would go to SavArt Scholarship, a foundation founded by Savage to assist fine arts students at the University of Kansas.