One of the biggest Kansas City restaurant mysteries of the last year has been: Will any local restaurateur be brave enough to take over the ancient venue abandoned by Nichols Lunch 10 months ago? The legendary Nichols Lunch wasn’t just one of the last independently owned, 24-hour diners left in midtown. But at 85 years old, it was one of the oldest continually-operating restaurants in the city when it locked up the doors September 24.
Yesterday, “Mama” Jan Imber and Ira Auerbach, owners of the 10-year-old Bell Street Mama’s diner at 1726 West 39th Street, confirmed that they had signed a lease on the Nichols Lunch location at 39th Street and Southwest Trafficway and had already started renovation on the space.
The new restaurant will be called Mama’s 39th Street Diner when it opens, Auerbach hopes, in October. The good news for fans of the hearty fare at Bell Street Mama’s is that by moving into the old Nichols location, Imber and Auerbach will be able to increase their dining room considerably. The old Mama’s space could barely seat 60 customers, while the new restaurant will seat over 160 patrons. The bad news, for Imber and Auerbach anyway, is that it’s going to require a hell of a lot of work.
“The place was a mess,” Auerbach says. “Very dirty and hardly anything in the place worked. A lot of the equipment is quite old, so whatever we can’t fix, we’ll replace.”
The building wasn’t new when a Greek immigrant named Frank Nichols opened his namesake lunch counter there in 1921, but there’s some debate as to just how old the one-story structure really is. It got a funky modern facelift in the 1960s. While exploring the interior of the restaurant, Imber and Auerbach discovered an old Westport abstract showing that there was some kind of building on this property as early as 1829, back when fur trader Francois Chouteau was still trapping muskrats on the Missouri River.
“Westport is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Kansas City,” Auerbach says.
There were times, sitting in one of the grungy booths at Nichols Lunch, that I could well believe the building dated back to the 19th century – and that some of the customers did too.
The biggest change planned for the new Mama’s 39th Street Diner will be the hours. Imber and Auerbach have no intention of keeping the restaurant open 24 hours like the previous tenant, but they do plan to serve as late as midnight on Friday and Saturday nights to lure in the hungry bar crowd; Missie B’s, after all, is literally around the corner. Another benefit will be plenty of parking at the new restaurant; there is almost no off-street parking for Bell Street Mama’s customers.
Auerbach says that the bigger kitchen in the old Nichols Lunch will allow him to expand their bakery business so that patrons can come in to buy freshly-baked layer cakes and cinnamon rolls. “And we’re expanding the menu to include steaks and chops too,” he says.
But the real drawing card at the new diner will be breakfast – just like it was when the late Frank Nichols started grilling eggs and bacon 85 years ago. – Charles Ferruzza