Lillis, who has lived most of the past six decades in Kansas City, knows Union Station well. She can tell you exactly where the old marble counter stood in the long-vanished Harvey House -- site of the renovated station's ill-fated "food court" -- and precisely where one entered the Westport Room, the station's "fancy" restaurant, which lasted until well into the 1960s.
For the last five years, Pierpont's has been the station's only upscale dining venue, withstanding the tenuous fortunes of a would-be entertainment destination that has nearly been derailed by questionable planning. Pierpont's is one of Union Station's few success stories. It has always outclassed its culinary rivals in the historic hall: Fitz's Bottling Company went flat pretty quickly, the food court is an uninspiring use of a stunning space, and the Union Café had neither focus nor identity. (Tellingly, Union will be taken over next month by its fourth operator, corporate food-service giant TreatAmerica.)
Anderson has been running Union Café (he's the third manager) and is glad to be ridding himself of the place. "Pierpont's had to hold off on directly competing with it, particularly at lunch," he says. But I doubt that the two restaurants were ever in competition for customers. Pierpont's has always enjoyed positive name recognition -- often more positive than Union Station itself.
"Business has always been good, but we've been hurt by so much negative publicity generated by Union Station," Anderson says. "Some customers equate the restaurant with the Station. We're just getting over that hump."
The last time I reviewed Pierpont's ("The Spirit of J.P. Morgan," February 24, 2000), the place was newly minted, chef Todd Brooks was still in charge of the kitchen (he's now the corporate executive chef for the Anderson Restaurant Group) and there wasn't a decent piece of bread to be had in the joint. I'll never forget our snippy waiter announcing, "We haven't instituted our bread program yet."
It took a couple of years to find the right "program," but the warm sourdough boule now served with dinners is a vast improvement over the wimpy breadsticks and salty rolls from five years ago. In fact, just about everything coming out of newly promoted executive chef Brandon Crain's kitchen is superior to the fare Pierpont's offered in its early days.
I was sad that Pierpont's had abandoned its version of the famous Westport Room Salad (a chilly wedge of iceberg dripping with lemon-parmesan dressing), but Anderson assures me that it's revived periodically. Besides, I found solace in a more creative innovation: a combination of fresh greens, red onion, blue cheese, candied walnuts and garnet slices of poached pear drizzled with a chocolate-balsamic reduction.
On the night I was dining in the former ladies' room -- now as tastefully appointed as a 19th-century tearoom -- I could have made a pleasant meal out of that salad and the bread, but my dining companions goaded me into ordering something more elaborate out of pure rebellion.