Chow Town

The American Restaurant begins transition to a pop-up event space

The American Restaurant gives diners a view of the downtown skyline.
The American Restaurant gives diners a view of the downtown skyline. The Kansas City Star

A riveting chapter in Kansas City’s fine dining saga will come to a close at the end of 2016: The American Restaurant will be transformed into a space for “one of a kind” events and pop-ups in 2017.

Until the end of the year, The American will remain open during regularly scheduled business hours: Wednesday through Saturday for dinner and lunch on First Fridays.

Former American executive chef Celina Tio, who currently owns Julian, Belfry and Collection — a space also available for pop-up events — thinks the evolution of The American is in tune with the times.

“I didn’t see it coming, but it makes sense,” Tio said. “Sure, I’m sad to see change, but I’m happy it will still be used as a milestone, special-occasion place.”

Fine dining is the antithesis of grab-and-go dashboard dining: The American recommends setting aside two to three hours for its tasting menu ($110, plus an optional $75 beverage pairing) and up to two hours for a three-course meal ($65, plus an optional $45 for a beverage pairing). As dining has trended more casual, business for many former white-tablecloth restaurants has shifted to special-occasion events like weddings and private dining events.

A Crown Center press release said: “The decision to reimagine The American Restaurant is consistent with our ongoing efforts to attract future generations to Crown Center.”

The goal will be to continue “showcasing innovative chefs and emerging trends.”

“We have a wonderful tradition with The American, and to evolve with this concept gives us a great opportunity to provide diners with new experiences,” said Anne Deuschle, integrated marketing manager for Crown Center.

Rich history

Once considered the crown jewel of Crown Center, The American opened in 1974 with the support of civic leaders Don and Adele Hall. The goal was to create a restaurant that would put Kansas City chefs on the nation’s culinary map.

After consultations with the legendary James Beard, considered the father of American cooking, and revered restaurateur Joe Baum, who was behind many of another era’s touchstone restaurants, including Windows on the World, architect Warren Platner was hired to create a modern, light and airy restaurant.

The grand dining room features sweeping bentwood arbors that fan across the ceiling and a wall of windows offering a spectacular view of downtown.

The kitchen has been headed by some of the country’s most talented chef alumni, including James Beard-award winning chefs Michael Smith, Debbie Gold and Tio. All three remain in Kansas City and continue to shape the city’s culinary scene.

Notables such as Christopher Elbow of Christopher Elbow Chocolates, Colby Garrelts of Rye and Bluestem, Alex Pope of Local Pig, Josh Eans of Columbus Park Ramen Shop and Happy Gillis, and wine expert and Star columnist Doug Frost also spent time in the kitchen or dining room.

The American had the clout to attract some of the country’s greatest chefs for luxurious benefit dinners. The roster included the late Jean-Louis Palladin of the Watergate Hotel and the late Charlie Trotter of Trotter’s in Chicago, as well as popular chefs Tom Colicchio, Rick Bayless, Norman Van Aken and Jose Andres.

Current executive chef Michael Corvino, who received a four-star review from The Star in 2014, will move on to other projects in August.

[Review: “Art, elegance and magnificent ingredients define The American Restaurant”]

My review set the scene: “For the past two decades there has been a casual revolution going on in the way America dines out: When was the last time you had to plead with a snooty maitre d’ for a table?

“Chefs have tossed their toques, those tall, white, pleated hats signifying classical French training. They’ve removed expensive table linens and thinned the once-customary forest of stemware.

“There are a few brave holdouts in this rush to informality. But even at the American Restaurant in Crown Center, a truly grand restaurant, there are subtle signs of the times. My college-age son, who donned a suit and tie for the occasion, gave me a slight nod to tsk the gentleman wearing an oxford shirt, but no tie or jacket. Now there is no dress code, and jeans are welcome.”

An excerpt on executive chef Corvino’s style: “Corvino, 32, arrived … from Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas and immediately began to impress the local chef community with creative yet classically refined New American fare served as if it were edible abstract art on a plate.”

In an interview with The Star after accepting the chef’s job, Corvino said he emphasized procuring the finest ingredients, whether that’s just outside the restaurant’s door or flown in from across the country. His modernist plate presentations revealed a sophisticated eye for the interplays of color, shape and texture.

“I’ve had an extraordinary experience over the last three years at The American, and it was a difficult decision for me to leave for my next role,” Corvino wrote in a text message Friday. “I have the greatest respect for the Hall family and the legacy they created for the progression and betterment of Kansas City.

“Being part of this iconic restaurant and one of its now finite chef alumni will be a proud part of my history. This was an invaluable stepping-stone in my career, and it certainly brought me to my next chapter, which I will be excited to share at the end of my term at The American.”

Pastry chef Nick Wesemann, a James Beard award semifinalist who has worked at the restaurant for 11 years, expects to continue there until the end of the year.

A fading tradition

Once upon a time, diners yearned to be pampered by tuxedoed waiters. The restaurant was one of the few that offered tableside preparations, including the decanting of rare wines. The crystal, linens and wine cellar were all of top quality.

So is that kind of fine dining on the brink of extinction?

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“I don’t think (fine dining) is really ever going to die,” Wesemann said. “There’s always going to be that need for a special-occasion place. It’s definitely a luxury product — who can dine like that every day of the week? But there’s definitely a market for luxury products.”

Every chef over the past decade and a half has tried to make diners feel comfortable — dispensing with a dress code and welcoming jeans in an effort to create an informality that might entice them to hang out at the bar and order a few appetizers instead of a meal in courses. Still, most patrons had trouble seeing the space as a casual weeknight stop-off.

Tio said whether The American will be able to retain the clout to entice chefs from around the country depends on who does the bookings and what kinds of relationships and friendships they have in the larger culinary community.

At this time, Deuschle declined to go into any detail about the pop-up plans (“We are still working out the details on what that will be”) or say whether the dining room will undergo remodeling or renovation. Generally, pop-ups are dining events that are designed to have a limited run in a particular space. Think special event, but with a chef who has name recognition or an intriguing culinary point of view or concept to share.

The American will continue to serve its seasonally focused menus through the end of the year.

“We’ve got a really good team here, even with Michael leaving,” Wesemann said. “It will be a good crew to finish up with.”

Jill Wendholt Silva is The Star’s James Beard award-winning food editor. She is also the lead restaurant critic and Chow Town’s blog curator.