Willie Grandison went to bartending school in the late 1950s, but what has made him the most iconic working bartender in Kansas City isn't something he could have learned in class.
"If you want to be a bartender, you've got to start by working in a bar," says Grandison, the 76-year-old master barkeep who has been a fixture at the upstairs bar of the American Restaurant for the past four decades.
"When I started out, I was called a bar porter. They're called barbacks now. You're there to assist the bartenders. And if the bar gets really busy, you jump in and help."
Grandison has come a long, long way from that first porter position - at the long-razed Famous Bar, on 12th Street - to head bartender at the American. But after a half-century in the cocktail-making business, he says he's ready to throw in the bar towel.
"I have been working all of my life, since I started sacking groceries at age 15. I've never been without a job, never collected unemployment. I raised five kids and almost always worked two jobs. It's time for me to rest. I just wanted to quit. The bar business ain't what it used to be."
The restaurant's namesake, a scrappy and ambitious young graduate of De LaSalle Academy and a college football player at St. Mary's College in California, had married his girlfriend, Josephine Cropisi, a 23-year-old grocer's daughter from Kansas City's Northeast, the year before he purchased the tiny restaurant; the first of their four sons, Leonard, was born several months after he started running the business.
Fifty years ago, when Kansas City residents could tear themselves away from the three networks on TV (Petticoat Junction and The Fugitive both premiered in 1963) to go out for a little cibo Italiano, the choices included Italian Gardens downtown, Jasper's in south Kansas City, Villa Capri in Overland Park and V's Italiano Restaurante on Highway 40. V's was named for Vita Totta, who opened the tiny restaurant with her husband, Jay; the original place (three blocks from the current location) only had a seven-stool counter, three tables and four booths.
"And a much more limited menu," says Greg Hunsucker, the current president of V's who has worked at the restaurant, beginning as a 13-year-old busboy, since 1974. Hunsucker later married the Tottas' daughter, Mary. "I'm Italian by osmosis."
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the iconic Italian restaurant, Greg and Mary Hunsucker are featuring monthly specials from now until October, the actual anniversary month of the trattoria, which is now much bigger and fancier than the first location. The January special, offered every day of the week, is a good one - I've had it myself! - a four-course dinner for two for $19.63. The meal features a toasted-ravioli appetizer, two salads, and two pasta dinners with a choice of meat sauce or meatballs or meatless marinara sauce, and two slices of the restaurant's signature rum cake for dessert.
Last week, Fat City's Jonathan Bender reported on the opening of Cafe Gratitude in the Crossroads: the vegan restaurant at 333 Southwest Boulevard, a licensed satellite operation of the California restaurants of the same name. The local owners, Natalie and Mike George, have gotten quite a bit of press for bringing the concept (which includes dishes named "I Am Fortified" and "I Am Transformed") to Kansas City. But they owe a little gratitude to the real pioneers in meatless food service in Kansas City, like Unity founders Charles and Myrtle Fillmore.
In the summer of 1906, the Fillmores opened Kansas City's first all-vegetarian restaurant, the Unity Inn, on the first floor of an old frame house at 913 Tracy. The restaurant opened, like Cafe Gratitude, with meatless cuisine and good intentions. Perhaps intentions that were too good. During the opening weeks of the original Unity Inn, patrons could pay as little or as much for their meals as they wished. It was a noble gesture, but the Fillmores sadly learned that some people in this city didn't understand the real meaning of the word gratitude.
Why not ask an important figure from the past: Bill Gilbert, the dapper-looking octogenarian and co-founder — with his father, Joe Gilbert, and Paul Robinson — of Kansas City-based Gilbert/Robinson restaurant empire.
Gilbert/Robinson was a major player in building the American casual-dining concept in the 1970s and '80s. The company was sold off, in pieces, in the 1990s, but Bill Gilbert still continues to work as a consultant. Today, Gilbert spoke to the members of the 40-Years-Ago Column Club at the Plaza III Steakhouse, the iconic local steakhouse that Bill Gilbert and his partners opened in 1963. When asked what he saw as the future of the restaurant industry, Gilbert said that "change is always the case. Every day there are new ideas, new change, a new innovation."
Discussing the current culinary trend, gourmet hamburgers, Gilbert says, "Once there's a hot new concept introduced, everyone jumps on the bandwagon. A few years ago it was steakhouses, and there was a glut of overbuilt, overdone steakhouses."
And Gilbert well understands how the current economy is affecting today's restaurant business. Long before the Gilbert/Robinson partnership became a chain powerhouse, exporting the Houlihan's Old Place and Bristol Seafood Grill concepts across the United States, Joe Gilbert ran a lunch counter at the junction of Ninth Street and Delaware — during the Depression.
Yesterday, Fat City reported on the celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Westport Flea Market, which began in the summer of 1981, serving burgers in the middle of an eclectic "mall" of vendors selling everything from baseball cards to Zenith Hi-Fidelity record players ... and everything in between.
What interested me is the life of the big old building at 817 Westport Road before Mel Kleb opened the original Westport Flea Market. The current owner of the business, Joe Zwillenberg, has a menu from a previous tenant — the Place in Westport — a restaurant that also sold burgers and beer. But I have yet to find anyone in the restaurant community who recalls ever eating at the Place in Westport in the late 1960s and early '70s. That includes restaurant consultant and chef Bonnie Winston, who was very much on the scene during Westport's evolution as a dining and drinking destination; Winston created the menu for the trend-setting Prospect of Westport.
The building has an interesting past. And thanks to Steve Noll, executive director of the Jackson County Historical Society, I've learned a little more about the checkered history of 817 Westport Road.
A Fat City reader this morning sent us a link to a story in the Scotts Valley Patch, an online newspaper covering the Scotts Valley community in California's Santa Cruz Valley, about a chef, David Smith, who has Kansas City connections. According to the article, David Smith -- celebrating his 20th year cooking at Peachwood's steakhouse at the Inn at Pasatiempo in Santa Cruz -- was formerly a chemistry professor at UMKC and the chef-owner of a successful restaurant, the Triple Crown, "a horse-racing-themed Kansas City-style steakhouse."
Smith left the Kansas City area in 1989 after 15 years of operating the Triple Crown. I have no recollection of the restaurant, so I called chef Smith in California to ask: Where in the hell was it?
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