In the culinary universe, this meat-loving metropolis is most famous for its barbecue, steakhouses and fried-chicken restaurants. But over the years, that mind-set hasn't stopped vegetarian entrepreneurs from at least trying to make their case. They fervently believed in what they were doing and, damn it, they did it — not always successfully. But it's not easy focusing only on the spuds in a meat-and-potatoes town.
Back in 1906, when the stockyards in the West Bottoms were in full swing and Kansas City was building its reputation for serving the biggest, juiciest beef steaks, the innovative and vegetarian Charles and Myrtle Fillmore — the founders of Unity — opened the city's first meatless cafeteria at 913 Tracy. It was considered more a novelty than a "real" restaurant, but the Fillmores steadily created such a loyal following for their unfancy fare — nut loaf, boiled potatoes, salads, grains and desserts — that they later built a bigger, much snazzier Unity Inn on the same street.
The Unity Inn operated downtown until 1951 (when it moved to Unity Village in Lee's Summit, where it continues in a much-reduced format). But other vegetarian restaurants popped up over the years, including, in the 1970s, the Golden Temple Restaurant in Westport and at 51st Street and Main — the menu included mushroom stroganoff and an East Indian platter. In the mid-1980s, vegetarian chef Zoe LaGrece opened her namesake restaurant in the neighborhood now called the Crossroads and kept it going for a decade. "Looking back on it," LaGrece says, "I didn't do that badly. Was it hard running a vegetarian restaurant in a meat-loving town? Yes. But I love a good challenge."
LaGrece's restaurant started out strictly vegetarian, but fish and chicken were later added to the menu. This, she says, "vastly improved the number of people who came in." By the time Eden Alley and the Blue Bird Bistro opened — with limited meat offerings on their menus — vegetarian cuisine had become not only much more popular but also almost mainstream.
The newest kid on the block is Café Seed, which isn't a vegetarian restaurant but a completely vegan restaurant — no meat, no eggs, no dairy, no honey. Does that mean no customers?
I'm a little worried about that because I had two meals at this tiny, extremely likable venue and was one of the few people in the dining room. Admittedly, the weather was horrible during both visits, and owner Ericka Mingo told me that she lost some clientele when she was forced to shut down for a couple of weeks because of a ventilation problem in the building; it had nothing to do with her business and was recently fixed.
Before I even set foot in the low-slung, 1930s-era building, I had heard quite a bit about the restaurant, with two recurring themes: The food was good; the service was slow. My friend Gina, who I thought would be an ideal regular patron for a place like Café Seed, wasn't sure she'd go back. "I had a great grilled-cheese sandwich," she said, "but I felt I waited years to get it."
Listen, folks: This restaurant has one person, Mingo, in the kitchen and one server on the floor. It's not Chubby's. Yes, I waited patiently for my meals on both of my visits — in one instance, I was the only customer in the place. But the pacing wasn't ridiculously glacial. I had taken a magazine to read and enjoyed looking around the restaurant, which is unlike any other dining venue in town.
For one thing, the building is laid out like an H, with a little hallway separating the main dining room and kitchen from the second dining room and retail shop. That front room is also an art gallery, while the adjoining room has bookshelves laden with DVDs, CDs and various trinkets such as metal boxes of pins. You know, pins that make a statement. Several have the face of Malcolm X; my favorite has the head of a young Isaac Hayes with a lush, 1970s-era Afro.