|Popular prices, counter service....|
|The same place in 2010|
The building hasn't housed a restaurant for a long, long time -- I vaguely remember a short-lived saloon there in the late 1980s. The building is currently the Third Eye Event Space, which can be rented out for weddings and private parties. No straw hats required.
(Image of Kelly's Restaurant courtesy of OldKC.com)
|Enrico Caruso: Great singer, bad tipper|
Last weekend, the Lyric Opera of Kansas City concluded its run of Puccini's opera Tosca, which was a favorite of the legendary Italian tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921) -- he's singing an aria from the opera here -- who was equally passionate about Italian food. But when it came to tipping the waiters, Caruso -- who was born in poverty in Naples -- was not so passionate.
Caruso's stinginess was reported in Studs Terkel's 1970 book Hard Times. Terkel interviewed former New York City restaurateur Tony Soma, who frequently waited on Caruso in the early 1900s. "He was a bad tipper," Soma recalled. Caruso performed in Kansas City in 1906, but there are no waiters still living, alas, who can testify to Caruso's graciousness when it came to gratuities.
(Image via Flickr: Audio Vault)
|The Victor Hugo Inn -- where cocktail drinkers were "Les Miserables"|
This vintage postcard, which dates back to the 1940s, describes the Victor Hugo Inn as "the finest and most exclusive place for chicken, rainbow trout and steak dinners. Victor Hugo has a most unusual refined and elegant homelike atmosphere where no liquors are served. JUST FINE FOOD." The brassy capitalization, I should note, is their touch, not mine.
I wonder if the proprietors of the Victor Hugo Inn are turning in their grave knowing that the refined and elegant mansion is long gone, replaced by a Price Chopper supermarket -- see below -- that sells not-so-famous fried chicken and lots of booze.
|"How about 'Good Food?' Too vague? Well, how about 'Pretty Good Food?' No?"|
Kansas City has had a long history of restaurants with names that sort of say it all. In the first half of the 20th century, most of the restaurants in town -- according to the City Directories of the period -- didn't even have names: most were listed simply by the names of the owners. This tradition continued well into the late 1930s, when Mrs. Fairie Myers -- whatever happened to her? -- ran her namesake restaurant at 924 Winchester. In the 1930s, a lot more little eateries and diners had names that said a lot about the cuisine in three words or less: Sanitary Lunch, One-Minute Lunch, Nifty and Dandy, Jolly Made Shop and my own favorite, the Roasty Toasty Sandwich Shop, which once served roasty toasty sandwiches at 2456 Troost. I wish it was still there, but it's long gone -- like most of this neighborhood, actually.
The sign, above, for Nice Food, a Chinese take-out restaurant at 7557 State Avenue in Kansas City, Kansas is short and to the point. The joint, which is tiny, serves nice food. Cheap too. The menu features 22 different combination plates, all including an egg roll and pork fried rice, for $6.50. For big appetites, the place sells most of its dishes by the quart: a quart of Kung Pao Shrimp sells for $9. There are also Chief's Specialties. That's right, Chief's, not Chef's. Those are the costly specials here, like Seafood and Beef for $10.95.
One of the nice things about Nice Food is that it still serves classic Chinese-American dishes that have been dropped from a lot of modern Chinese restaurants: Chow Mai Fun, Egg Foo Young, and Chow Mein -- and a Pu-Pu Platter that includes one egg roll, one spring roll, two crab rangoon, two pieces of teriyaki chicken, two fried chicken strips and two pieces of shrimp toast for $7. The appetizer selection also includes buttermilk biscuits and French fries. That sounds nifty and dandy to me.
With apologies to Alan Scherstuhl, Pitch archivist of the brilliant and the bizarre, I must share with all of Fat City my own recent historical find, a hardbound book titled Household Equipment, which I discovered over the weekend in the FleaMart.
You haven't heard of the new-ish FleaMart? It's the clean and shiny flea emporium at 14300 E. Highway 40, in the location formerly occupied by Rick's Picks, once the vendor of all kinds of fabulous salvage treasures, including dozens of gourmet food items that were, as often as not, past their suggested expiration date. My friend Truman didn't care if the gourmet cookies, sodas, imported pates and such were several months past the expiration date. "Look, I'm still alive, aren't I?" he once asked me. That wasn't encouraging enough for me to buy them.
But now the building is all about fleas. I mean, cast-off treasures. Some new, some old, some certifiably antique. While I shopped, I suddenly realized that FleaMart features live entertainment: a skinny middle-aged man playing a guitar sang upbeat Christian songs into a microphone that carried throughout the store. Not hymns, exactly, but variations on hippie folk songs with Jesus as the pivotal character.
Kansas City still holds many mysteries to me. Like the venerable downtown saloon, The Quaff Buffet, right, at 1010 Broadway. The current owners have operated the Quaff since 1954, but the bar didn't actually start serving food until the early 1990s. So where did the buffet in the title come from?
Well, I think I may have one answer. While doing some research through the City Directories for a program I gave at the Kansas City Public Library last week, I found out that in the years during and following the end of Prohibition, there were two kinds of buffets in Kansas City. Well, maybe more if you throw in the tradition of calling a whorehouse a "buffet flat." But that's another story.
Now back in the 1930s, there were the buffets that actually served food -- although not buffets in the sense that they were "all-you-can-eat" joint like a Ryan's Steakhouse or a Home Town Buffet or the dozens of Chinese buffets scattered all over town-- but a combination bar and dining room, like the long-gone El Sereno Buffet and Restaurant, below, which once served American and Italian dishes at 800 Walnut Street.
I love the postcard for the El Sereno Buffet, which claims the place is the "Home of the Hot Tomato Chaser." If anyone finds a recipe for such a drink -- I don't know if it had booze in it or not -- there are a couple of library employees who would like to taste one. The El Sereno was apparently famous for its fried shrimp, one of those dishes that probably tastes really good with a Hot Tomato Chaser.
And that brings me to the other kind of buffets.
There was a long spell after Prohibition ended in 1933 when there were liquor stores that didn't serve food, but still called themselves buffets, like the Rialto Buffet, the Lobby Buffet and Frank and Georgia's Buffet. The name of the Quaff Buffet may be a relic of that era.
But the only kind of buffet I want to visit is one that has "All You Can Eat" connected to the title.
|Charles Ferruzza Collection|
Back in the summer of 1984, Michael Jackson -- who died today at age 50 -- was the hottest name in the music industry: His 1982 Thriller album had, at that point, been on the Top Ten charts for a consecutive 80 weeks -- and would go on to become the biggest selling album of all time. When the news broke that Michael Jackson and his brothers would kick off their Victory Tour in Kansas City, this town went crazy.
A burger joint on the edge of Westport, Mitch's Little Angus -- long gone, I'm sad to say -- unfurled this banner 25 years ago (almost to the day) touting the "Gourmet Burger of the Week:" the Thriller Burger. I took this photograph right before I went inside to eat one. I can't remember what was on the featured burger to make it, you know, thrilling. There are some things you forget eating after a quarter of a century. But in honor of Michael Jackson, I wish I were eating a Thriller Burger right now.
|Charles Ferruzza Collection|
Fat City's Owen Morris -- who is probably tired of me talking about the Kansas City restaurants I wanted to experience, but waited too long and they closed (like the legendary Gold Buffet) or places that were already long closed by the time I moved to town in 1984 -- turned me on to the new book by former New York Times restaurant critic William Grimes. The new Grimes book, Appetite City: 25 Restaurants We Wish Still Existed focuses on New York restaurants, of course.
The Kansas City joints that I wish still existed include Bretton's (and the Polynesian-style Bali Hai Room downstairs), the Wish Bone -- I grew up on the bottled salad dressing, but missed the fabled fried chicken restaurant, which closed in 1980 -- and the Say, Man! hamburger joint at 3843 Prospect. The 1950 postcard, above, offers a few tantalizing details about the diner: it was open 24 hours, served ten cent burgers and hot do-nuts.
Does anyone have a time machine I could borrow?
You may know Carol Jean Barta -- the local "Queen of All Media" -- as the little old lady rapper on that WeNeedGold.com TV commercial or, if blood and gore are your game, from direct-to-video screamfests like Bloodthirsty Cannibal Demons (where she played Haggis the Witch and invented her own recipe for prop vomit; pistachio pudding was the secret ingredient).
But Miss Barta, the "Garage Sale Queen" on KKFI-FM's Anything Goes Show, was also voted "Miss Cinerama" back in 1957 when the big vaudeville house-turned-movie theater at 14th and Main was turned into a Cinerama house with great fanfare. Carol revealed this tantalizing tidbit from her colorful life story when I took her to lunch at the Marquee Bar & Grill -- this week's featured Cafe review in The Pitch -- and she explained how she was selected to show off her shapely figure in order to promote the wide-screen Cinerama process at the former RKO Missouri Theater -- now the AMC Mainstreet.
The new Marquee Bar & Grill is located in the former lobby of the 1921 theater. Carol remembers it well. She once stood in line in front of the theater for nearly two hours in 1951 to see The Day the Earth Stood Still. "I didn't care that much about a science fiction movie," Carol Jean recalls, "but my boyfriend at the time was extremely attractive."
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