Jerry Naster makes some of the best flapjacks in Kansas City: light and fluffy and just hot enough to quickly melt a spoonful of whipped butter. He's also known for his hearty omelets, hash browns and hand-cut fries. The cooking isn't the type to land him on a reality cooking show, but the honest, home-style fare is a reality worth knowing nonetheless.
Three years ago, Naster almost stopped cooking altogether. After the death of his wife, Esther, he went into such a deep, rudderless funk that he made one of the biggest mistakes of his life: He decided to get out of the restaurant business.
At the time, he was running Jerry's Woodswether Café, the popular diner that he founded in the West Bottoms before moving it to Ninth Street in 2005. He had operated his namesake diner since the early 1990s, after two decades spent cutting meat at Snyder's Supermarket.
"When I bought the restaurant," he says, "I didn't even know how to boil an egg. Two of my waitresses had to show me how to cook eggs. But I just kept on cooking and learned how to make all kinds of things."
But after Esther died, in 2007, he impulsively sold the café. When retirement didn't suit him, he briefly tried another career, working for eight months at a local Hy-Vee supermarket. "It was just something to do," he says. "It wasn't really me."
So for the last nine weeks, Naster has been in his new kitchen — not much bigger than a walk-in closet — as the head cook at his latest venture, Jerry's Café. "After I got over the depression of Esther's death, I realized that I had really loved running my restaurant," Naster says. "So I started looking for a new location."
He was drawn to the shoe-box space formerly occupied by Georgie Porgie's, a strip-mall neighbor of Jasper's Restaurant. Like Naster's first restaurant, it's small (only 44 seats), and it's tucked into a narrow storefront with mustard-yellow walls. The tiny kitchen is enclosed by a peculiar black-and-gray construction that looks like a stage set for a community-theater production of Women Behind Bars.
When he sold his former venue, Naster signed a five-mile noncompete agreement, so south Kansas City fit the bill. "I haven't done any advertising, but my old downtown customers are finding me here," Naster says. "I guess they live out here."
But the clientele is also different in the suburbs. Gone are the burly truck drivers — regulars in the West Bottoms — sitting at black Formica-topped tables. These tables are fine, square and unpretentious, but they're not nearly as sturdy and comfortable as the ones on Ninth Street.
It doesn't help that Naster loads the tables up with condiments and accessories. On the Sunday morning that I shared breakfast with Linda, Richard and Carol Ann, there was hardly room for the plates amid everything else on the tabletop: a roll of paper towels, a tray of jelly packets, a mustard container, two bottles of hot sauce, packets of sugar, and a little bowl of nondairy creamers. Then came the plastic tumblers of water, the mismatched coffee mugs, and separate plates for almost every food item. The bacon was served on its own melamine plate (unbreakable, and it lasts forever, honey) instead of with the scrambled eggs and hash browns, so we were nearly overwhelmed by the stacked dishes and glasses that cluttered the table by the end of the meal. One unexpected jolt to the table might have created a landslide.
Naster admits that the tables are too small and that the service is still a bit uneven. That morning, I noticed a veteran waitress working the room (she's a political consultant in her spare time). But our server was joyless and even snapped at Carol Ann: "Don't talk so fast, I can't write that fast."
Later she apologized, explaining that it was only her fourth day. "I just moved here from California," she said.
"She'll be in shock when the weather starts getting really cold here," Linda whispered. She'll be in even more shock, I thought, when she learns how some customers leave lousy tips on the breakfast shift — a fact of table-waiting life that I learned the hard way.
The breakfasts here were very good. The pumpkin pancakes, an autumn special, were surprisingly light and delicately spiced — the best pumpkin stack I've tasted in town. My scrambled eggs and corned-beef hash (more beef than potatoes) were satisfying and comforting, although the dry slices of Italian toast were lukewarm, slightly scorched and served unbuttered — a culinary indignity that would be considered downright sacrilegious at a place such as Cascone's Grill.
Richard ordered one of that morning's specials: an overstuffed omelet made with salsa, peppers, cheese, and Jerry's own chorizo sausage. It was big enough for two people to comfortably share, and the chorizo was moderately seasoned and not a bit greasy.
The dining room had a good vibe that day. The customers were mostly older but cheery. So was I after the waitress handed me a mug of java, the perfect coffee for an old-fashioned diner: strong and black and cheap, with that take-no-prisoners kick of high-caliber caffeine. Upscale coffee, the expensive Roasterie kind, for example, is great for grander venues, but I'll take a no-frills brew with eggs and toast. Hell, it doesn't have to taste good; it just has to wake me up.
Jerry's stays open only until 3 p.m., but Naster does offer classic-diner dinner specials until he closes, including fried chicken, pork chops, and liver and onions. The day I went in for lunch with Joseph, we were surprised to see — this was a first for me — the original prices crossed out and cheaper prices handwritten to the side (except for the pork-chop dinner, which was actually a buck more expensive).
I was in the mood for a Reuben sandwich, and Naster delivered, although he used a peppery pastrami instead of traditional corned beef. The pastrami was slightly dry, but it was so effectively doused with his house-made Thousand Island dressing and a heap of mild sauerkraut that it didn't matter. And it was grilled, the way Reubens should be.
Instead of french fries (which I longed for because Naster cuts his own spuds), I ordered a healthier option, the homemade chicken-noodle soup, which had kind of a rustic appeal (thick, eggy noodles, barely peeled carrots) but needed more chicken.
Joseph got the fries with his bacon cheeseburger. Jerry's is a diner, which means you don't get to request a temperature on your burger. I've been to other diners and saloons that let guests choose the cooking temperature, though, and I think Naster should, too. Joe's burger came out well.
Still, it was an impressively big burger. Jerry considers all his burgers to be signature creations. The fries, as fat and long as those clunky old Crayolas, are first-rate when they're served right away and are tongue-searing hot. But thick fries like these can get cold (and flaccid) pretty fast, which reduces some of the enjoyment if you're only halfway through the burger.
Naster's desserts and breakfast pastries are all house-made, including the yeasty (and tasty) cinnamon roll. A decade ago, Jerry's wife baked the pies and cakes. Now Naster bakes the cinnamon rolls himself and pays a friend to make the iced layer cakes and other sweets.
"I make a lot more things from scratch at this location," Naster boasted, "than I ever did at the old place."
It's so much work, I wanted to say. But I held my tongue. "Retirement," Naster had told me, "is for the birds. I missed the people and all the action."
They don't make restaurateurs like Naster anymore. And when he's gone, I worry that there won't be a new generation of diner owners who care enough to make their own salad dressings and rolls. Jerry's Café, you see, is a slice of history. Better taste it before it vanishes forever.