Today we’re carving out a sliver of time to talk with one of Prairie Village’s newest restaurateurs, Kelly Manning and his chef, Lon Froneberger, at the relatively newly-hatched Tavern in the Village—a cozy neighborhood place boasting an attractive bar and dining room ambiance.
435 South: Tell us a bit about how you two got together.
Kelly Manning: We’re both neighborhood Kansas City boys. I went to Pembroke Hill and Lon went to Shawnee Mission North High School.
When I started to look around for a chef, I talked to a couple of chef purveyors who knew of Lon and the next thing I knew, he was on board. I think it was meant to be. Just like this location—it’s about the best location anyone could want. We’ve only been open less than a year and it’s exceeded our expectations.
Lon Froneberger: I had been working briefly at McCormick & Schmick’s and opened the Oread Hotel in Lawrence. I heard about Kelly opening in Prairie Village and after meeting with him, we agreed on a number of points about the direction of the restaurant. It was good timing for both of us.
435: Explain how the two of you collaborated to develop your menu.
KM: We wanted the restaurant to have a neighborhood feel—both stylish and comfortable. The menu had to focus on serving consistently great food. This is really a place where you can come in two or three times a week and eat appetizing food for lunch and/or dinner—and not get tired of it.
LF: There’s really simplicity to our menu—we have one for both lunch and dinner. Every bite has to be right. We also didn’t want to be pigeonholed serving one type of food. Our menu is varied: everything from a touch of Asian, Mexican, some Cajun, and lots of variety in between.
435: So people can come in and get a steak or a decent filet of fish?
KM: Absolutely. We have a filet and KC Strip, but we also have salmon and a Fresh Catch of the Day.
LF: I source all the fish and filet it in house. Some people don’t even bother to ask what type of fish we’re serving—they just know it’s fresh and delicious.
435: What food and dining trends do you see coming around to the Midwest and Kansas City in particular?
KM: Specialty restaurants are popular—maybe it’s gourmet burgers or just organic. For us, it’s a matter of keeping our customers healthy and happy. We can tailor any dish to a customer’s needs. Maybe they want only gluten-free items so we suggest our Chili Seared Shrimp or Asian Tuna Salad; maybe they want a vegan or vegetarian dish—we can adjust anything for a diner’s specific request.
LF: We want to cook to order, providing everything in a timely manner. We don’t want people to wait too long.
435: That leads directly to how you treat your customers—even if they’re sometimes wrong.
KM: We have a country club feel with the approachability of a local restaurant. We listen to our customers. A customer’s perception is our reality—we’re not going to get ruffled. We train our staff so that everyone knows the correct approach. After our soft opening, I knew that the concept of a single menu for lunch and dinner, accessible price point, and delicious food was a good combination. People visited with each other, tried the food and noticed there wasn’t any pretension. We’ve really received great feedback.
LF: And that’s the whole idea, people are consistently returning. We anticipate what people will enjoy.
KM: For example, we’ll do food specials like steak sliders, hummus, or calamari. Our mixologist bartender, David Smuckler—whom I brought from Morton’s Steakhouse Kansas City where I was the general manager—uses only the freshest ingredients to fashion really interesting cocktails. In fact, people can sit in the bar and have their whole meal, if they choose.
435: You’ve obviously designed this restaurant with a casual, neighborhood feel in mind. What led you to this particular look and what advice would you give a novice who wants to open their own restaurant?
KM: I’ve spent a lifetime for this moment. I’ve wanted to open a restaurant since I was 20. So this place was the culmination of a dream. I worked with Mike Kress and Tom Proebstle at Generator Studios who helped me with the design so the concept—plus the physical space—is exactly how I envisioned it — stylish and above all, comfortable.
As for recommendations, with our restaurant, we didn’t want to teach anybody how to eat or drink. You know some places do that really well. That’s not us. Serving consistently great food and combining great flavors with no surprises is the goal.
LF: We’re dedicated to this project—I’m here all the time but that’s what a chef does.
KM: You really have to learn the business and know what you’re doing. I’m finally getting a day or two off but it’s been nearly seven months now. We started something from scratch and we’re seeing that people are enjoying themselves and that’s rewarding. It’s been fun.
LF: That’s the whole idea—if you’re not having fun at work, you’re in the wrong business.
KM: We’ve exceeded our goals, even in this down economy—it’s been great.
435: There’s suddenly a lot of competition in Prairie Village. Is that helping or hurting? With that in mind, do you have plans to expand possibly with another concept in another place?
KM: Well, I think all the recent openings are helping. We’re all so different from one another. We’re not Story or Cafe Provence or Urban Table—our concepts are varied. So now you can make Prairie Village a destination and have solid, dependable, creative choices.
Right now I’ve got at least six restaurants—but it’s all in my own mind! You know, Kansas City is big and spread out, neighborhoods are very identifiable; what works in one area of the city may not work in another. If we do decide to grow, it’s going to have to be the right space to craft an outstanding guest experience. We’ll hang our hat on that.
Tavern in the Village
3901 Prairie Lane,
Prairie Village, Kan.
Gloria Gale is an Overland Park-based food writer. "On the Menu" is not a restaurant review, it is a summary of dining out in Johnson County and the area.