Just around the corner from Nichols Lunch is a parking lot that's adjacent to the nightclub Missie B's. A cinema called the Roanoke Theatre once stood on the site. In the 1930s, a woman named Ethel Cowell ran a taxi service out of the building. Cowell's pretty teenage daughter, Angie, worked there until she ran off to New York, became an actress and married millionaire William Woodward Jr. In 1955, Angie then known as Ann Woodward shot and killed her husband, saying she thought he was a prowler. It was a huge scandal, but Ann was never charged with a crime.
In 1975, Truman Capote wrote a thinly veiled account of the shooting, for Esquire magazine, that blamed Ann for the crime. A few weeks before the magazine hit newsstands, Ann Woodward killed herself.
Maybe if she had remained in Kansas City, she could have gotten a job at Nichols Lunch. Maybe she'd be alive today, still working there. Nichols Lunch turns 84 years old this year. Most of my friends dismiss the place, but I have a soft spot for it.
Why? Nichols Lunch may be one of the least glamorous restaurants in Kansas City, but the 24-hour diner has outlasted most of its culinary contemporaries, except for the Savoy Grill and the New York Delicatessen. Who cares if the place hasn't been redecorated in decades or that some of the orange-leatherette booths have rips and tears in the fabric? And so what if the food is mediocre? Nichols Lunch is to local restaurants what Keith Richards is to rock and roll. They look like shit, but they're survivors, man!
The irony of Nichols Lunch's longevity is that by serving cheap and unfussy home-style food, this greasy spoon marched right into the 21st century, unlike most of the city's fancy, upscale restaurants from the snazzy Terrace Grill at the Muehlebach Hotel in the 1930s to the chic Café Allegro, a dozen blocks west of Nichols Lunch, in the 1990s.
A good friend of mine, a real food snob, eats at Nichols Lunch several times a week. He doesn't live far from the place, so he considers it his neighborhood diner, a place where he can get a decent meal day or night. Like a $3.75 breakfast with an egg, two pancakes and two slices of bacon.
It's not Breakfast at Tiffany's, mind you, but it is history. The Keith Richards of Kansas City diners turns 84 this year.