April/May 2012, Home in the Northland Magazine
Story By: Pete Dulin
Photography By: Brad Austin
A row of local shops line each side of the main strip in old downtown Excelsior Springs. Guests tour the Hall of Waters and Cultural Museum. Afterward, they pop into stores selling antiques, curios, spa services, and arts and crafts. When hunger arises, a good bet is Ventana Gourmet Grill where tourists will find locals proud and pleased to patronize the bistro.
Before Ventana existed, downtown had Ray’s Lunch and Diner (opened in 1932) and some specialty shops. Fast food and chain restaurants encroached on the commercial outskirts of the growing city. Sisters Jill Rickart and Wendy Baldwin decided that their restaurant could fill a need for an “upscale casual dinning experience” sorely lacking in the community.
Circa 2002, Rickart’s kids had started school. She wanted work that would allow her to have some family time. She and Baldwin, who had years of restaurant experience, committed to opening their first establishment together. This past February marked the tenth anniversary of Ventana Gourmet Grill, quite an achievement for any restaurant to survive through the upheavals of the economy over the past decade.
Baldwin knew this vocation was the right choice. She says, “Part of my gift is that I love people. I love creating and serving others. It’s something I really enjoy.”
Ventana, which means window in Spanish, is housed in a building that dates back to the 1890s. The building has seen its share of change. Former residents range from the Boston Mercantile to dime stores to a Ben Franklin retail shop in the Seventies.
Ventana’s aesthetic warmth draws from classic details. Original tin on the ceiling, red brick walls, and polished but weathered dark wood floors evoke a timeless presence. Wooden cafe-style tables and chairs suggest an European bistro’s ambiance. The atmosphere is relaxed and friendly as sunshine paints a glowing mural of light in late afternoon.
Touches of yesteryear give Ventana a familiar coziness. A candy display holds bins of gargantuan jawbreakers, malt balls, Pixie Stix, Slow Poke, and other treats. In the corner, a Steinway piano with yellowed keys looks like it might hail from the era of Jesse James when a shifty-eyed musician banged away a tune in a saloon. Ventana does feature live piano music on Friday and Saturday nights, adding to the bistro flair.
People in the community come here to meet as much as to eat. Ladies lunch, business men and women entertain clients, couples celebrate with a romantic night out, and families mark special occasions such as wedding rehearsals and anniversaries with a trip to Ventana. The community’s pride and appreciation for having a nice place to gather is evident. “Customers get excited to come in, bring their friends, and introduce them to the staff,” says Rickart.
Ventana hires students from local and area schools for their serving staff. Cooks Josh Gall, Ambrose Alberts, and Jason Hallmark have worked in the kitchen for many years. Rickart adds, “We instruct our staff to learn customer names and their dining preferences so they can order ‘the usual.’ It makes customers feel important.”
Not surprisingly, the bistro’s regulars enthusiastically support this local business. “We have regulars come in on certain nights,” says Baldwin. “They call us if they can’t make it or go on vacation because they don’t want us to worry if we don’t see them. It’s amazing.”
This embrace of a local business goes beyond the adoration of hometown boosters. The food is a sure draw. Before Ventana opened, the city lacked a place to eat quality steak, pasta, and seafood. Not any longer. Ventana Gourmet Grill was also featured on KCPT’s food program Check, Please! Kansas City two years ago with favorable reviews.
The kitchen prepares its dishes from scratch including pasta and cheesecakes. The food is so popular that the sisters have not been able to change the menu in any substantial way.
“Everything is ordered so much,” says Baldwin. She cites a cheesy baked potato soup served on Fridays that has been on the menu since the second week of the restaurant’s opening ten years ago. “People like to have their favorites.”
Baldwin favors the shrimp scampi and Burgundy steak on the menu. Rickart likes to eat the 16-ounce rib-eye and gourmet veggie sandwich. The restaurant serves food to suit vegetarian, low-carb, and gluten-free diets.
Steaks are cut fresh from the local grocer are a popular entree as well as the Tuscan pasta, a colorful dish loaded with sun-dried tomatoes, artichokes, mushrooms, and spinach tossed with spinach fettuccine and feta cheese. The Sugar Burger is a six-ounce serving of ground Black Angus beef cooked to order, brushed with a smoky brown sugar glaze, and topped with sauteed onions, cheddar cheese, and bacon.
The menu offers an extensive array of appetizers, salads, and daily soups that could double as a weekly calendar for customers. Lobster bisque is the soup? It must be Thursday. The bounty of burgers, sandwiches, sides, and hearty entrees of pasta, steak, and seafood means never getting bored with the options. Homemade cheesecakes and bread pudding are worth loosening the belt and unsnapping the button on the waistband to indulge.
Ventana stocks a full bar, specialty beers, teas, and an array of wines from around the world to complement meals.
After a visit or two, don’t be surprised by the friendly smiles as the folks at Ventana Gourmet Grill make you feel at home. Whether it’s a short jaunt or a longer venture, it’s worth the drive to downtown Excelsior Springs to experience this crowd-pleasing local place of pride.
Mon.-Sat. Lunch & Dinner
117 W. Broadway
Excelsior Springs, Mo 64024
More photographs: http://homeinthenorthland.com/index.php/ventana-gourmet-grill/