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.
The menu isn't elaborate: four salads, 10 burgers, and three sides that are creative variations on the fried fare that's been served with burgers since a Connecticut luncheonette owner named Louis Lassen reportedly invented the grilled beef sandwich in 1900. The skinny-cut french fries and sweet-potato fries are quite good, but the labor-intensive onion rings, coated in a crunchy, tempura-like batter made with Boulevard Pale Ale, are extraordinary.
Chef Eans, who did such a great job glamorizing standard old bruschetta at The Drop (he created an imaginative array of toasted bread and toppings), has done for hamburgers what Jimmy Choo did for women's shoes. Most of the fashionable sandwiches are served on buttery brioche buns, and even the most traditional of the lot, the "Classic," is topped with a hunk of aged New York white cheddar, homemade pickles and from-scratch ketchup. Sharon ordered it and loved every bite. Bob and Bernita went for snazzier choices. Bob, naturally, wanted the most expensive burger, a $12 American Kobe beef number topped with port wine onions, mustard aïoli and truffle butter. "It's fantastic," he said. Bernita loves blue cheese but was hesitant to sample the Inside Out burger until she was informed that it was the most popular choice at the restaurant — it boasts a decadent molten center of hot blue cheese. I had a buffalo burger, made with lean North Dakota bison and topped with pepper jack cheese and a sweet-hot pepper jam. It was wonderful, and the low-fat quality made me feel less guilty about eating a few extra fries.
Like any first-rate hamburger stand, Blanc offers malts and milkshakes — made with frozen custard (Foo's Fabulous Frozen Custard, no less) — but, alas, no diner-style pies. If you want dessert, it's a shake or nothing.
I couldn't have eaten dessert on either of my two visits to Blanc, probably because I overindulged on onion rings and frosty soda pop. One Saturday night, I took along my friend Jeanne and her teenage daughters. The joint was jumping, and our quartet waited 20 minutes or so for a table, long enough for 16-year-old Alexandra to turn up her nose at the taste of cranberry soda and her mother to slurp a tall glass of Lost Trail Sarsaparilla. For diners who prefer something more hardcore, Blanc offers no fewer than 112 bottled beers and a limited wine list full of decent choices.
Alexandra had become a vegetarian in recent months, but the kitchen accommodated her request for a BLT salad without the B (Berkshire bacon), and it was terrific. The meat-free spiced lentil burger is also good, but the crumbly, fragile patty of curried lentils and vegetables is difficult to eat. It is, however, an exciting alternative to the bland, doughy veggie burgers typically served in other restaurants. Alexandra's sister, the picky Roxanne, ordered something — I lost track of what the burger was after she intently cross-examined the waiter about the lettuce ("Is it leaf lettuce or chopped? Iceberg or romaine?") and every other possible topping and condiment. Paul, our server, was much more patient with her than I would have been in my waiter days. Jeanne, meanwhile, loved the meatloaf "burger" on onion brioche.
I went for the pork burger, made from slow-cooked pulled pork that Eans braises and prepares in the form of a patty, topped with a fat mound of chipotle cole slaw. It was tasty, but it also reminded me that just because something looks like a burger doesn't mean it is a burger, no matter what it's called.
Still, the up-and-coming Blanc is a meat-patty palace in my book.