In 2009, newlyweds Simon and Codi Bates opened a gourmet burger shop in a downtown Lawrence bar.
The following year, they moved the business to a standalone spot at 803 Massachusetts St. and gave it a new name: The Burger Stand at the Casbah. The restaurant has since become famous in the college town for truffle fries, Kobe burgers and an impressive craft beer list. It’s also spawned a spinoff in Topeka, The Burger Stand at College Hill.
In October, the Bateses added a completely different restaurant to their roster. Bon Bon, located in a renovated stone building at 804 Pennsylvania St. in East Lawrence, doesn’t serve burgers or fries. The eclectic, no-rules menu features dishes inspired by the couple’s travels. Think French cassoulet, Indian squash korma, Nashville hot chicken and Japanese octopus fritters.
“It’s the food we want to eat,” Simon Bates says. And much of it’s not available elsewhere in Lawrence.
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Bon Bon is located in a raw stone building in East Lawrence, a quaint area with brick streets and sidewalks that is now home to art spaces such as Cider Gallery, a warehouse that has been converted into lofts, and a coffee bar called Decade.
To convert the building into a restaurant, the Bateses opened up the space by tearing down interior walls. They cultivated a “Euro” vibe by painting the rock walls black and white and installing reclaimed wood banquettes. The space was too small for a kitchen, so they converted a U-Haul truck into a mobile kitchen complete with a range, stove, grill, two fryers, a freezer and a dish station. The black truck is permanently parked on the 70-seat patio.
The heart of the 40-seat restaurant is a copper-topped bar that faces a wall of liquor bottles that stretches two stories tall. Bartenders reach top-shelf spirits with a rolling ladder that reminds me of the one the candy man used in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Customers order and pay at the bar, but servers deliver food and drinks to the table.
Much of the restaurant’s menu was inspired by a solo sabbatical trip Simon Bates took in 2015. The chef visited 13 different countries, including Thailand, Japan, India, the United Arab Emirates, Hungary, Israel, Austria and Belgium.
Bon Bon’s Takoyaki appetizer ($10) are Simon Bates’ play on octopus fritters he first tried in Tokyo. He and Codi Bates tried to make the hush puppy-like golden orbs 10 times before perfecting the recipe, which features house-made Japanese mayo, barbecue sauce and sunflower seeds, a nod to the couple’s Kansas roots.
One of my favorites is the Japanese-inspired Katsudon, a towering stack of sushi rice, caramelized onions, mushrooms, cabbage and fried egg topped with crispy strips of pork cutlet. The $14 entree is surrounded by a moat of sweet soy-dashi broth. It tastes like fried rice, with the flavor volume cranked to 11.
And after four or five visits to the restaurant, I can’t not order the sweet and sticky Thai-style wings ($9). They’re among the best I’ve ever tried — we’re talking The Peanut-level good.
Codi Bates also got creative when it came to crafting Bon Bon’s cocktail menu. Her favorite drink is the Best Intention ($12), which mixes peaty scotch with gin, elderflower, lemon, egg whites and bee pollen.
“It’s floral, frothy, creamy and slightly smoky,” she says.
Those who like margaritas and palomas should try the Worst Intention ($9), made with reposado tequila, grapefruit juice, lime and curacao.
Bon Bon’s bar also serves nonalcoholic potions such as locally brewed Kanbucha kombucha, a fermented tea drink flavored with lemongrass and Thai basil, and a deliciously creamy coffee-free Maca Latte ($6) made with maca root, a Peruvian herb; cashew milk; coconut oil; maple syrup; and cinnamon.
Bon Bon is still a work in progress. The Bateses plan to add a covered canopy with wind blocks and heaters by late January or early February. In the spring, they envision a beer garden lush with potted plants.
The couple, who live two blocks away from Bon Bon, say their ultimate goal is to help improve the neighborhood they call home.
But for now, they’re savoring their new creative outlet — and so are regular customers like me.
“This is us having fun,” Simon Bates says.