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Archive for Wednesday, December 5, 2001

PrairieFire bistro flames out

Downtown site likely to become regional or national bar and grill

December 5, 2001

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A restaurant that brought casual, bistro-style fine dining to Massachusetts Street is closing next week after a year in business.

PrairieFire: an American Bistro, 724 Mass., will close Dec. 15, owner Steve Wilson said. He already has made contact with a Kansas City-area consultant, in search of a "regional or national" bar-and-grill restaurant concept to fill the building, whose $1 million renovation was completed in November of last year.

The move will leave 35 employees out of work and once again raise the question of whether Lawrence can support an expanding menu of establishments whose meals stretch the upper end of the market.

"The lion's share of our customers ended up coming from Kansas City and Topeka," said Wilson, 30. "For some reason we were more successful convincing guests to drive an hour to visit us, rather than getting people to cross Mass. Street.

"The market gets what the market demands. Fine dining in Lawrence is an uphill battle, with so few fine dining restaurants doing business in Lawrence. We often found ourselves having to compete on price points with restaurants that were not fine dining.

"It's like having to sell Ford Mustangs for the same price as Festivas. It's a losing proposition."

PrairieFire opened in November 2000, bursting onto the scene with two other establishments The BleuJacket around the corner and Hereford House in northwest Lawrence offering upper-end meals. PrairieFire featured seating for 175 in an upstairs dining room, main-level bistro and downstairs wine cellar, surrounded by walls adorned with original art from Lawrence painter Louis Copt.

Wilson said the restaurant had earned kudos from food critics and notoriety from national publications. Earlier this year, PrairieFire won a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for its wine selection, which currently stands at 2,300 bottles.

But unable to forge a consistent draw during the week, he said, even strong weekend business from out-of-towners couldn't stave off the inevitable.

He intends to lease the space.

"We'll be able to bring in somebody else who can bring in huge volumes a bar-and-grill type of thing," he said. "The market will get what it wants.

"If everybody wanted to shop at local bookstores, we wouldn't have Borders. If everybody wanted to shop at locally owned shops, we wouldn't have South Iowa Street. The market gets what it wants.

"Who am I to stand in the way of that?"

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