Thursday, April 1, 2010

Piccadilly Cafeteria closes: the end of an era

Posted By on Thu, Apr 1, 2010 at 2:00 PM

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The last great place to break up a relationship
The last traditional cafeteria in the Kansas City metro -- Louisiana-based Piccadilly Cafeteria -- closed after servings its last meal on Tuesday night. The cafeteria opened in 1993 in a free-standing building at 11741 Metcalf Avenue and served modestly priced meals to a primarily older clientele -- the same group who grew up eating in cafeterias in the 1940s and '50s.

Several years ago The Pitch honored Piccadilly Cafeteria as "The Best Restaurant for Breaking Up" on the basis that it was highly unlikely to be seen by anyone you knew and, in case the argument became somewhat volatile, most of the patrons were wearing hearing aids anyway.

Yes, there are still plenty of all-you-can-eat buffets in town, but the actual cafeteria concept -- which hit its stride during the Depression -- has been fading for decades. Kansas City was once filled with great cafeterias, including the legendary Forum Cafeteria downtown which, in its heyday, was serving thousands of meals every day; the founder of the Piccadilly chain, T.H. Hamilton, had actually worked for the Forum Cafeteria chain, which was created by Clarence Hayman, who started his career as a stable boy for newspaper tycoon William Rockhill Nelson.

In his history of restaurants, America Eats Out, John Mariani writes:

The basic cafeteria concept was ideal for the American market: The food was plentiful, good and wholesome, the prices were more than fair, and the gregariousness of the enterprise made going to one an event for many families.

Cafeterias' popularity in the years before and after World War II encouraged mom-and-pop operations to open in residential neighborhoods; one example was the long-razed Bluebird Cafeteria at 3215 Troost. These proved to be ideal venues for an inexpensive lunch or a quick dinner before a movie at one of the many second-run movie houses that dotted stretches of Troost, Prospect and Main streets.

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Crane's Cafeteria in 1962

The family-run cafeteria was a staple in Kansas City -- like the neat and tidy Crane's Cafeteria, pictured right, at Truman Road and Hardesty -- into the 1970s. But then the idea of sliding a tray down a stainless steel serving line and eating that kind of unsophisticated fare (Crane's motto was "Be at home with our home cooking") suddenly fell out of favor. And it was increasingly harder for the little, unassuming family-owned restaurants to compete with big chain cafeterias -- at one time Kansas City had big, shiny locations of the Furr's and Wyatt's.

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You could fill up before you threw up at Putsch's Cafeteria
For some Kansas City diners, the cafeteria era really ended with the 1980s closing of the once-glamorous Putsch's Cafeteria on the Country Club Plaza (where the Houston's is now). This cafeteria was big, and designed in the height of 1960s moderne, with a curvy S-shaped sofa, pictured right, and signature dishes like spinach salad, cinnamon rolls and excellent fried chicken. And because it was so inexpensive, it attracted a motley clientele of senior citizens, punked-out Art Institute students and penny-pinching young adults who could fill up on a lot of cheap carbohydrates before going out boozing in the Westport saloons.

So long, cafeterias.


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