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.
"Patrons paid according to what they felt the meal was worth," wrote local author Tom Taylor in his 2009 book, Unity Village (Arcadia Publishing, $21.99). "Workers in the restaurant handed out cards that read, 'All the expenses of this house are met by the freewill offering of its guests. Freely you have received, freely give.' "
Taylor says the "freewill" concept didn't last too long. Too many customers weren't "freely giving" for those meals of nut-loaf, home-baked breads and fresh vegetables. The staff at the Unity Inn started charging set prices for modest but nourishing meals like French peas with carrots, rice balls, lima beans and rolls. More than 140 people dined in the restaurant the day it opened, and the Unity Inn became so successful, it quickly outgrew the frame house, and by 1920, the Fillmores opened a new, two-story cafeteria at the corner of Ninth and Tracy (the building is still standing, now occupied by an antique shop). Before World War II, the Unity Inn was one of the largest vegetarian venues in the United States, sometimes serving as many as 10,000 meals a week.
When Unity moved its headquarters to the newly built Unity Village, near Lee's Summit, in 1949, the Unity Inn moved, too. "By the early 1960s, the inn stopped being all vegetarian," says Tom Taylor, former manager of public relations for Unity. Today, more than a century after serving that first meat-free meal, the Unity Inn still offers one vegetarian entrée on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays - lunch only, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. - in the cafeteria at Unity Village. The faux meatloaf, the Unity Nutloaf, is frequently a special, just as it was in 1906.
Another early trend-setter was chef and culinary teacher Zoe LeGrece, who first cooked vegan cuisine at the former Amber Waves Cafe at 43rd Street and Main in the early 1980s before opening her own restaurant, Zo's Cafe, at 614 West 26th Street in 1987. "I had a feeling that the Crossroads was going to become something," LeGrece says. "I was just about 10 years ahead of my time." LeGrece operated Zo's Cafe until 1994.
And it would be unfair not to also give a shout-out to the other vegetarian restaurant pioneers, like Jane Zieha of the Blue Bird Bistro, Eden Alley's Sandi Corder-Clootz, Heidi VanPelt-Belle of Fud, and Cathy Isbell Ustik who operated the old Manna House Restaurant in Overland Park. (I'm sure I'm leaving someone out - let me know in the comments.)
Kansas City may have a long history of being a steak-and-potato town, but the tradition of vegetarian restaurants has a long and noble history as well. Just make sure to pay for your dinner.