By CHARLES FERRUZZA
My friend Bob knew there was trouble when he walked into the restaurant formerly known as the Trolley Inn at 11400 East Truman Road and saw a fancy espresso machine where the old grill used to be.
“I went in for a cheeseburger,” Bob mourned, “and the new owner doesn’t serve cheeseburgers or anything deep-fried anymore. It’s a soup place!”
For nearly 62 years, the Trolley Inn – built out of a pre-World War I streetcar – was an iconic diner where things almost never changed. Not long after Kansas City “retired” the trolley car from its long career as a neighborhood streetcar, an enterprising restaurateur, Charles Bonjour, bought it in 1946 and turned it into a ten-stool diner on one of the busiest traffic arteries: Van Horn Road. The street is called Truman Road now, but the original Trolley Inn hewed to the same menu for decades: hot breakfasts, burgers and fries, hot coffee and cold malts.
As recently as 2006, when the diner – which is still only a long counter with low stools – was owned by Jason and Frances Tonnahill, the menu featured eggs and bacon, burgers and fried pork tenderloins. And smoking! Those days, baby, are long gone.
I stopped in to place – now named Novella’s Soup Trolley -- yesterday for breakfast. It’s been open for four weeks and, yes, Bob was right: The grill is gone. The friendly new owner of the diner, Jeff Wilson, named it for his late grandmother, who wasn’t just a legendary cook, he says, but passed down hundreds of recipes to him. Including that day’s carrot soup, which he found in an old letter to his grandmother bearing a 1923 postmark.
Instead of grilling or frying food, Wilson uses a convection burner – which requires very little grease -- and a convection oven (which he uses to bake the thick slices of french toast that he serves on ridiculously small plates). The breakfast menu is limited to the baked french toast, frittatas, “personal scramblers” (patrons can choose three ingredients from a list of cheeses, meats and vegetables) and biscuits and gravy.
Alas, there were no biscuits and gravy that morning. Wilson explained that if he used too many electrical outlets in the old trolley, the electricity blew out. So the gravy wasn’t ready. Maybe another day.
His helper hadn’t shown up yet, so he was pretty busy doing all the cooking himself, including getting that day’s soup ready for the lunch shift. I did stay for breakfast, a “personal scrambler” made with the cheddar, Italian sausage and red peppers that I had personally selected. The toast was cold, but the eggs were good.
But soups are the place’s specialty. Wilson features at least one soup every day and it’s a lot more sophisticated than chicken noodle or tomato. This week’s selections include today’s Caribbean crab bisque, Thursday’s chicken Parmesan and Sunday’s Rhode Island bean soup.
Instead of burgers, Wilson serves cold sandwiches (crunchy chicken salad) or baked melts, like the turkey melt. The old glass-front refrigerated pastry case is now filled with cans of chilled soda pop, but another one has little pans of homemade “personal pies,” including cherry crisp, cheesecake and key lime. A little pie costs 99 cents. A slightly larger one is $1.99.
In addition to good ol’ java, Wilson offers lattes and cappuccino, which can be sweetened with flavored syrups.
Two nice ladies with matching hairdos, both owners of shops on historic Independence Square, were eating breakfast and badgering Wilson with questions. “Have you joined the Chamber of Commerce yet?” one asked. “That will bring in a lot of business.”
As long as they don’t expect a cheeseburger!