The critic has a mild conversion in the basement of Unity Temple.

East of Eden 

The critic has a mild conversion in the basement of Unity Temple.

If you have some spare spinach around, say $225,000 or so, and want to buy Kansas City's original vegetarian restaurant, the building is for sale at the corner of Ninth Street and Tracy. The front windows are boarded up, and the second-floor windows, which gaze out from a long-neglected ballroom, are open to the elements. But this solidly constructed building, the former Unity Inn, is a poignant reminder that vegetarian dining was never a novelty in meat-and-potatoes Kansas City. It was as much an option in 1920 as it is today.

In fact, Kansas City's first vegetarian restaurant, the original Unity Inn, opened in an old house on the same spot at Ninth and Tracy in 1906. Unity founders Charles and Myrtle Fillmore preferred the meatless lifestyle and opened a restaurant just down the street from their church's brand-new administration building. For Kansas City diners, the Unity Inn wasn't just odd because there weren't any beef or chicken dishes on the menu -- it didn't charge money, either! According to Tom Taylor, Unity's public-relations manager, the food at the restaurant was served in return for a free-will offering.

I wish Kansas City's best-known vegetarian restaurant, the ten-year-old Eden Alley -- located in the basement of the Unity Temple on the Country Club Plaza but neither owned nor operated by Unity -- operated on a free-will basis, because I'd probably eat there a lot more often. The current prices aren't unreasonable, but a nearly free meal could make me overlook a lot of the little irritations about Eden Alley that have driven me bananas over the years.

I'm almost reluctant to confess those petty annoyances, because so many of my friends are passionate about the place (including my regular dining companion, the beefsteak-loving Bob). If I even whisper that the ambience is nonexistent, the service inconsistent, the food hit-or-miss, I get bombarded with comebacks like "The food is so fresh and attractive!" and "It's filled with such interesting people!"

Interesting people? Well, interesting-looking people, particularly if you're turned on by men with scraggly white beards wearing Birkenstocks with dark socks, or humorless middle-aged women in desperate need of new hairstyles. Oops, did I say that? Wash out my mouth with some soy-based soap!

The restaurant, which is operated by Sandy Corder-Clootz (who founded it with former business partner Monica Jones in 1993), is either loved or loathed. Another friend of mine, a very talented local chef, rolls her eyes at the mention of its name. "It's not Eden Alley. It's Paradise Lost," she insists. "It reinforces the stereotype that vegetarian restaurants are boring and bland."

That stereotype may be true, though I've had some incredibly positive experiences in veg joints over the years. That includes a long stint working as a waiter in a Midwestern macrobiotic restaurant where the food was absolutely delicious, even if the décor was ghastly and the unsmiling owner looked like an unhealthy ghoul. Honestly, I don't think that Eden Alley's cuisine is boring or bland (although the veggie burger comes dangerously close), but the atmosphere is so dreary that it puts a damper on the kitchen's most imaginative dishes, not to mention any stimulating conversation.

"It's like eating in a gloomy high school cafeteria," my friend Carol said, noting the dark-green linoleum floors, the dim lighting, the moody new-age music. The green chalkboard on one side of the room, which once displayed the daily specials, now boasts an inspirational message: "The only true security in this world can be found in the process of giving love."

"And I love this place," Bob said. He sounded truly secure as he dipped a slice of warm pita into a little container of smooth but ungarlicky hummus. We were dining with Lou Jane and Roberto, who admitted that it had been years since they'd visited the restaurant. Me, too, for that matter, and my last visit had been so unremarkable that I was having a hard time remembering it. But the menu did seem to be more limited than I recalled.

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