I had several epiphanies about the City of Fountains on Prospect Avenue. The area has suffered numerous indignities over the years but is still a solid neighborhood -- unlike some of its suburban counterparts. Two of my white friends looked startled when I offered them a meal -- my treat -- at a restaurant they had never heard of in a neighborhood they had never considered visiting. One of them, a professed liberal, even let it slip that she locks her car doors the minute she crosses State Line. Welcome to Kansas City!
There is a car wash on the lot where the Mary Lou once showed movies and nary a trace of the Sky-High Tavern, the Sun Rise Donut Shop or the Safeway. But for the last half century, there has always been some kind of luncheonette in the space where, for eighteen years, Denise Hayes has served up home-style food -- "family food," she calls it (not to be confused with the more grown-up chicken wings, T-bone steaks, shrimp dinners -- and liquor -- she offers at her namesake nightclub, Niecie's Lounge and Grill, on Blue Parkway).
The interior of Niecie's Restaurant hasn't changed too dramatically since it was known as Tom & Fritz's Lunch in the 1950s, though Hayes has certainly spiffed up the place since she took over in 1984. She painted the woodwork turquoise, reupholstered the booths and commissioned a mural depicting her (fingers flashing with diamonds), her son Mark and some of her favorite customers, including comedian Slappy White, who ate dinner there when he was playing in town ten years ago.
Fancy it isn't. But what diner is? The place makes do with paper napkins, plastic tumblers and daily specials printed in Magic Marker on a white vinyl board above the counter. Ten stools at the counter are almost always occupied during the breakfast and lunch shifts; the dining room is divided in half by a partition "planted" with artificial flowers, including a stalk of gold lamé poinsettias.
Before Hayes bought the place, it had been Ron's Restaurant, which closed at 3 p.m. Hayes wants the early-dinner set, too, so she stays open until 7 p.m. (8 p.m. when the summer hours go into effect next week). But the evening crowd is sparse compared with the bustling breakfast shift, when diners sometimes have to wait for a table to free up.
Niece's breakfasts are farm-sized affairs. They're not the best diner breakfasts I've had, but they're still very true to what I've eaten in little cafés dotting Southern highways: plate-sized slabs of salty, dark pink country ham or meaty pork chops "fried right" (according to the menu), served with rice, grits or potatoes and toast or a biscuit. Pancakes are doughy and heavy and linger on the grill a shade too long, giving them a crusty rather than silken surface.
Conversation is lively during the mornings and at lunch, when customers banter with the waitresses and each other -- everyone seems to know each other. "We have customers who come in here and eat every day," Hayes says. "Our customers are very loyal."
After a few of Niece's dinners, which are vastly superior to the breakfasts, new customers might become loyal followers, too. For one dinner I brought along my friend Carol, who admitted that she hadn't been to the neighborhood since the 1960s ("There was a wonderful deli around here someplace," she said) and was a little disconcerted by the landscape's changing fortunes. Still, she attacked a plate of tender oxtails with a fervor I had never seen before.
"These taste exactly like the ones my mother used to make," she said. "And you don't find oxtails on restaurant menus very often."
Or salmon croquettes, neck bones and beans and ham hocks. More dinner choices seem to crowd the daily-special board than the menu, which lists pork chops, chicken-fried steak and burgers. Some of those regular menu items turned out to be disappointments: the chicken-fried steak was a basic-issue frozen patty deep-fried and splashed with brown gravy. On the other hand, Niece's meatloaf was a War and Peace-thick hunk adorned with a rich, satiny gravy and served with a big, fluffy mound of fresh mashed potatoes. It made up for the salad, a bowl of chopped iceberg and tomatoes drenched with enough dressing for three other salads.
My friend Bob thought his thinly sliced barbecued brisket tasted fatty. I found it a shade dry but certainly flavorful. Either the kitchen crew changes or the recipes are inconsistent -- that night, a side dish of macaroni was rich and cheesy; on a second visit, it was milky and watery, and the mashed potatoes were dry and lumpy. But that second night, I was impressed with a baked chicken accompanied by a savory dressing.
No one expects perfection at these prices. (Few of the dinners cost more than seven bucks.) This is food for the soul, not the gourmet. I much preferred the desserts made in Niecie's kitchen -- fruit cobblers, a delicately spiced sweet-potato pie, a caramel cake with a burnt-sugar icing -- to the imported Golden Boy pies. They're delicious, but they're also standard in most local diners. I know a Golden Boy pie at first bite, and both the apple pie and the sugary lemon (under a foamy, chewy white meringue) were from that Kansas bakery. "We do buy Golden Boy pies if the kitchen gets overloaded," Hayes told me. "But usually, all of our desserts are made in the kitchen."
For some diners, a trip to Niecie's might be culture shock -- on all four of my visits, my table had the only white faces in the joint -- but isn't getting out of our isolated little routines (no matter what they are) a healthy thing?
I was trying to explain that to Bob one morning after a breakfast at Niecie's. We were driving away from the restaurant, toward Bruce Watkins Drive, when a white teenager with a crewcut, smoking a joint, wheeled his squat bicycle in front of my car and flashed us a dirty look.
"Welcome to Kansas City," Bob said, locking his door.