The brand new dining room at The Savoy at 21c in Kansas City has plenty of history underneath all the shiny newness. / The Savoy at 21c The brand new dining room at The Savoy at 21c in Kansas City has plenty of history underneath all the shiny newness. / The Savoy at 21c

Interview: Chef Joe West of Kansas City’s Reborn Savoy

Executive chef Joe West made a cheesecake this morning, even though it’s not on his menu. This evening, he’ll make off-menu shrimp and scallops in garlic sauce. And a few weeks ago, he pulled off a chocolate souffle on the fly — all to please nostalgic guests at his brand-new, old restaurant.

The Savoy at 21c in Kansas City opened quietly in early July after a four-year hiatus following a kitchen fire. The original Savoy Grill opened in 1903, and in over a century of operation hosted local and national names alike. KC native Harry S. Truman and his wife Bess frequented the Savoy, enjoying lunch in booth number four. (It’s still there, now adorned with a plaque and renamed the Presidents’ Booth.) The Savoy was, at the time of its closure, Kansas City’s oldest continually operated restaurant.

The menu is new, but much of the decor is not. A quick glance at the new Savoy, reimagined as part of the newest hotel project from boutique group 21c Museum Hotels, doesn’t exactly evoke a classic era of American dining. But a closer look at the dining room full of modern art, changing light colors, and sky blue plastic penguins — a hallmark of all 21c properties — reveals bits of its classic past. Enjoying a drink at the attached bar, original to the restaurant, lasting even through prohibition and location of the aforementioned famous booth, does feel like heading back in time.

The bar at The Savoy, is original to the restaurant and survived prohibition.

West is a Kansas-City native who worked under award-winning chefs in high-end kitchens in Denver and Las Vegas in addition to spending serious time working in his hometown under top local names like Colby and Megan Garrelts, Michael Smith, and Debbie Gold. The menu at the Savoy is a nod to the restaurant’s storied history but has been completely reinterpreted by West, who has been with the company since January.

“I wanted to bring dishes that had names, like Lobster Newberg, Chicken Francaise, Duck a l’Orange, Scallops Menieure, and, this one’s an obvious one: Caesar salad,” said West. Each of those dishes is on the menu, pleasantly heavy on the butter and sauce in an otherwise elevated farm-to-table world.

To gather inspiration for the menu, West and 21c colleagues spent two days in New York, eating at similarly-themed restaurants. Unsurprisingly, he found great inspiration in one of the city’s biggest re-openings: “The Grill was the biggest inspiration,” he said. “I totally got it when I walked in, seeing the buffets and the fruit platters the waiters in their white coats. I don’t drink martinis, but I ordered a martini because I felt it was appropriate.”

That’s the vibe he’s going for with his menu at The Savoy, honing in on his personal style and strengths in the kitchen.

“A lot of the stuff people have heard of — or maybe not,” he said. “There’s a generation that’s had these dishes before but maybe hadn’t in a long time because no one’s doing them anymore. Or, it’s brand new to someone because they haven’t lived through that generation before. It’s so old it’s new, in a way. So, yes, everyone’s had creme brulée a hundred times. I’m basically saying, ‘please try this one, I think this one’s the best you’ve ever had.’”

Escargot tortellini at The Savoy at 21c in Kansas City

There are classic dishes and cuts of meat with classic sauces, and sides like baked potatoes and asparagus. There’s also a few unexpected surprises, like chicken liver mousse and a buttery escargot tortellini. “That’s the dish that’s my signature,” West said. “It’s still a riff on garlicky, buttery, traditional escargot in a shell. I think it sells well because we put it in the tortellini pasta shape and people understand what tortellini is.”

With great history comes great responsibility. “We have to execute at a high level and we’re focused on the dish being straightforward,” he said. The creme brulée, for example, doesn’t have any fruit garnish, as not to get in the way of its classic preparation and presentation.

In other ways, the restaurant’s history has eased the pressure. “I don’t have the pressure of running a restaurant that’s focused on me as a chef, it’s focused on a time period and focused on the food itself. I’m more focused on the technique, using the best ingredients.” It’s a marked departure from the elevated farm-to-table concepts that have become popular. As dishes bathed in butter and classic sauces like hollandaise arrive at your table, you can see — and taste — the nostalgia.

West said he’s getting a significant amount of feedback from past Savoy guests, and just two weeks in, it runs the spectrum. Plenty of people are excited about the new space and menu, but, said West, “we have other guess who come in and are very critical of what we’re doing. I have to understand where they’re coming from. They have some fond memories of a place that was really important.”

As with any beloved restaurant, everyone has their favorite memory, and just two weeks in, plenty of guests request dishes from the old menu. “Unfortunately we have some recipes but we don’t have all of them. It’s tough to know exactly what they experienced before — when you don’t have any idea.”

Tonight’s shrimp, scallops and cheesecake, made to please a longtime Savoy patron with fond memories of the same dishes at the old Savoy, are West’s best interpretations of what he thinks they were like decades ago. “They’re not on our menu. And we’re hoping that maybe they will be better! Maybe it’ll be close to what she’s expecting. Hopefully.”

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