I can't tell you how many times I've driven by the squat, boarded-up, white-brick building at Seventh Street and Grand, just south of the Anthony's Restaurant parking lot, and thought, That must have been one of the first White Castle burger stands in Kansas City. The architecture of those early White Castles is so distinctive that the tiny building at 709 Grand couldn't have been built as anything else.
So I finally did a little research at the downtown library to answer my own question. And, yes, back in 1924, when a Wichita short-order cook named Walter Anderson and his business partner, Billy Ingram, started to expand their eight-year-old "fast food" dining concept outside Kansas, 709 Grand was one of the first local White Castles. By 1932, there were six in Kansas City.
Anderson and Ingram were careful about choosing the name for their little chain. Most greasy burger joints of that era were generally thought to be dirty and poorly maintained, but the word white evoked cleanliness. The early restaurants had open kitchens and shiny stainless-steel interiors. Decades before Ray Kroc started expanding McDonald's, White Castles were turning out a popular, consistent — and cheap — product.
Not popular enough for the River City, though. White Castle had pulled out of the Kansas City market by the end of the 1930s, though it would return briefly in the late 1980s. In 1952, the brick burger shack at 709 Grand was called Truman's White House Restaurant; today it looks like a storage facility.
It was hard not to think about White Castle while eating burgers in the bold, stark-white Blanc Burgers + Bottles. Owners Eddie Crane, Ernesto Peralta, Jenifer Price and chef Josh Eans didn't choose the French word for white because it suggested cleanliness, though the narrow storefront is certainly spick-and-span. Eans says the name came only after Price had redesigned a combination dining room and bar that had been painted a silvery gray back in 2006, when chef Tatsuya Arai turned the space into an ill-fated version of his namesake Johnson County bistro, Tatsu's.
Price and her husband, Peralta, and their two partners decided their new burger boîte should be completely different from the dark saloons in this Westport neighborhood, thus the bright paint job. The Gallic blanc sounded upscale and sophisticated instead of merely clean. The differences between it and White Castle are like night and day, but Blanc's thick, juicy burgers are just as seductive as those mushy little sliders — you just don't have to eat so many of them or be dead drunk to enjoy the experience.
My friend Addison has called the place Blanche since the night he saw a well-manicured hairdresser sitting at the bar wearing an orange polo shirt and matching socks, sipping on a color-coordinated Sunkist Orange Cream Float soda. "He was so annoying that I almost threw a sweet-potato fry at him," Addison complained. At least the ammo would have matched the stylist's ensemble.
I ordered a pastel-colored Izze pink-grapefruit soda on the night I first dined at Blanc (with Bob, Bernita and Sharon), but I wasn't wearing a pink shirt. I try never to use food or beverages as fashion accessories. The food here is visually appealing on its own anyway, and the serving accessories are whimsical, if you're into that. Fries and onion rings are served in brown paper bags tucked into doll-sized, chrome-plated shopping carts. Bob and the girls were charmed, but I'm well past the age where I appreciate toys on a dinner table. If the trio of dipping sauces had been served in a sectioned Hello Kitty plate, I might have lost my mind. Luckily, the house-made ketchup, stone-ground mustard and chipotle aïoli arrived on a more conventional palette.