It's only Tuesday, but it has already been a hell of a week for restaurateur Shirley Van Black.
Van Black has operated the Grandview diner Shirley's Homestyle Restaurant for 19 years. Back in the 1960s, this venue was a Dixon's Chili franchise.
Business has been up and down at the blink-and-you'll-miss-it venue, located at 12704 South U.S. Highway 71, over the last few years (particularly the dinner business), and the 74-year-old Van Black says she has had to use part of her Social Security income to keep the business afloat at times. But the worst was yet to come: Last week, a telephone scam artist convinced Van Black that KCPL was on its way over to shut off her electricity - KCTV Channel 5 first reported the story and its ultimately happy outcome - and insisted that she needed to pay the $631 bill over the phone immediately.
"I was told, 'You have to pay it now. Hurry, hurry.' I should have been more suspicious, but the call made me so nervous," says Van Black, who was recovering from a recent fall at her home that left her bruised and shaken.
She paid the bill, only to find out that none of the funds went to KCPL. That's when fans and longtime regulars of the restaurant sprang into action. Motivated by the news report of Van Black's loss, customers piled into the cafe on Sunday.
Last night, at 6:45 p.m. (the restaurant closes at 7:30 p.m. on weeknights), there were three occupied tables in the dining room. Van Horn sat down at each of the tables and talked with the guests.
"My daughter thinks it's time I closed the business," she says. "But I told myself, after I bought the business in 1994, that I would keep it going for 20 years. Well, next year is the 20-year mark, and I'll be 75 years old. So maybe I'll close it then. But right now, my customers are very loyal, and I want to stay open."
Shirley's Homestyle Restaurant could be a template for the kind of small-town cafe - cluttered with knick-knacks and fliers for upcoming events, like the Grandview Historical Society's ice-cream social this Saturday - that was once a staple of hamlets like Grandview that rapidly seem to be vanishing, replaced by cookie-cutter corporate imitations like Applebee's. The most popular meal served here is breakfast, and the dinner menu isn't fancy, by any means, at Shirley's: sandwiches, salads and a handful of entrees like Salisbury steak smothered in onion gravy, fried pork tenderloins, country-fried steak. Shirley still makes the fruit pies served in the restaurant herself (with help from a friend) baked in the flakiest crust imaginable. (I would have sworn the crust was prepared with lard, but Van Black says she uses only Crisco all-vegetable shortening.)
Last night's specials included chicken-fried steak with two side dishes or chicken with noodles with two sides for $6.69 and Sloppy Joes with tater tots for $4.69. The side choices are soup, mashed potatoes or a baked spud, green beans, cole slaw, apple sauce, and cottage cheese. Tonight's specials? Ham and beans with two sides or a chicken-tender wrap. My personal favorite from the Shirley's repertoire is the Wednesday-night choice: ham steak smothered in cherry sauce.
It's great with a piece of apple pie.