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Restaurant files plans to become first in downtown to have rooftop dining; popular KC restaurant closes its Lawrence location
I won’t even tell you how I got assigned rooftop dining-for-one this Thanksgiving. (I will say I thought it was well understood that certain rules of civility were temporarily suspended when only one scoop of potatoes remained.) Rooftop dining, however, isn’t always a banishment, but rather is big business for many downtowns. A Lawrence restaurant has filed plans with City Hall in hopes of bringing the concept here.
The folks at Ramen Bowls have filed plans to add rooftop dining to their building at 125 E. 10th St. If all goes according to plan, the restaurant hopes by spring to have a dining area to accommodate around 40 people, and a full bar area. The idea was sparked by a need to expand but a desire to stay in its current location, said co-owner Shantel Grace.
“We thought, what do they do in other cities?” Grace said. “They just go up.”
Indeed many downtowns do allow rooftop dining. I know I once spent a good part of a football weekend atop a Boulder, Colo., bar and restaurant. I even came to an unmistakable conclusion: Boulder is more beautiful during basketball season.
The idea of rooftop dining has come up before in Lawrence, but it has never made its way out of City Hall. We will see whether city officials give their approval to this plan, but it looks like it has a chance.
Longtime Lawrence businessman and developer Jeff Shmalberg is the driving force behind the idea. Shmalberg, who is the landlord for Ramen Bowls, was one of the key developers who got the ball rolling years ago on the idea of a TIF district to build a parking garage in the 900 block of New Hampshire Street, which eventually helped spur the dense development that has happened recently in the block.
Shmalberg said rooftop dining just seems to make sense in Lawrence, given that expanding the footprint of downtown outward is never easy.
“I think a lot of people are excited about it,” Shmalberg said. “That is why we have to do it right because other people will want to do this too. I think it would be amazing. There are so many rooftops that have an amazing view, but you have to do it safely. You have to do it structurally sound. You have to do it right.”
Indeed, this project will be closely watched. If Ramen Bowls is allowed to have rooftop dining, many other restaurants will follow suit. Look at sidewalk dining as an example of the proliferation that could come. Eventually, the city probably will have to decide whether it wants to limit rooftop seating areas only to restaurants or whether it should be open for bars too.
I didn’t get into that issue, but I did trade messages with Lynne Braddock Zollner, the historic preservation planner who is reviewing the rooftop request. She did not raise many red flags with the application, but also noted that the request must still be reviewed by the city’s Historic Resources Commission. Zollner said some key elements to the request are that the dining area would be setback from the edge of the building considerably and the profile of the dining area would be low. Both of those are important because those factors will limit the visibility of the dining area from the street. Historic preservationists likely will balk at the idea of rooftop dining, if it significantly changes the look of downtown buildings.
Shmalberg said Lawrence-based architect Lance Adams has been working on the design plans for months, and also has been working closely with the Lawrence fire department on other safety considerations. The project will involve much more than just putting some tables and chairs on the roof. New stairways that can serve as fire exits will be required, and new steel beams will be put in place to carry the additional load, rather than relying on the roof to do so. In addition, the roof will be plumbed for a bathroom and, importantly, the bar area.
Grace said having the full bar on the roof will be a selling point for customers. She and her husband, Tim, hope to convert the rooftop area into a space that has a bit of a Hawaiian feel, similar to some of the classier establishments they were familiar with when they lived on the islands.
“Tiki drinks and cocktails. Rum will be a part of what we do,” Grace said, although she said the restaurant won’t try to create a stereotypical tiki bar atmosphere. “But our vision is a space that is very connected to Hawaii.”
Hawaiian sunshine may be tough to come by year-around, though. Grace said figuring out how to make the rooftop usable as much as possible is requiring a lot of thought. She said plans call for part of the dining area to be under cover. She said heating devices also can be used to help on cold days. She said really hot and windy Kansas summer days may be the greater challenge. Figuring out how to deal with those seasonal issues probably will determine how prevalent rooftop dining becomes in downtown Lawrence. Compared with sidewalk dining, adding a rooftop space is going to cost a restaurant a lot more money. Grace, though, thinks people will be surprised at what they find once they are allowed on the rooftops.
“It is really beautiful up there,” she said. “You can see Mount Oread and all the red rooftops on campus. I think people are going to love it.”
In case you are not familiar with Ramen Bowls, the restaurant has been open for just more than three years. As you probably already have determined, it serves a different class of Ramen than the 33 cent packages of dried noodles you can buy from area grocery stores. The restaurant makes its own miso and tonkotsu broth each morning. In addition to the Ramen, the menu also includes homemade egg rolls, wontons, dumplings and sautéed soybeans.
“We’re thrilled with how business has been,” Grace said. “We just need more space.”
In other news and notes from around town:
• If your holiday dining plans included crayfish in Lawrence, you may want to rethink — or else get your net and start staking out your spot along the Kaw. The New Orleans style restaurant Jazz has closed its Lawrence location.
According to a sign on the door, the Jazz restaurant at 1012 Massachusetts St. is permanently closed. Jazz is a longtime Kansas City restaurant, featuring a variety of seafood and Creole dishes, plus live music. Its slogan is “Let the good times roll,” which normally is a pretty good attitude for a Lawrence establishment because if there is one thing the university crowd knows how to do, it is roll.
But, for whatever reason, the restaurant didn’t work out in Lawrence. The business had been open only a year before its closing this week. Jazz’s two other restaurants in Kansas City — including the one in The Legends shopping center near the Kansas Speedway — remain open, according to the sign in the door.
Jazz had occupied the downtown building that formerly housed Buffalo Wild Wings. That is a larger than average building for downtown, so it will be interesting to watch what comes in to take its place. If I hear any more on the subject, I’ll let you know.