Not too many chefs in Kansas City can say they've cooked in two restaurants that used to be gas stations. But one of them is Todd Schulte, who in 2008 turned a soup-delivery business into the popular Columbus Park lunch joint the Happy Gillis Café & Hangout.
One of Schulte's first professional cooking jobs was in the kitchen of the old Joe D's Wine Bar in Brookside (now home to Celina Tio's Julian Restaurant), a building that began life as a neighborhood service station in the 1920s. This was many years before West Bottoms developer Bill Haw encouraged Schulte to look at a much less promising site: a vacant gas station across the street from the Livestock Exchange Building. Schulte liked the location, near R Bar and the Golden Ox, but the building, he says, had "issues." The floors weren't level, the old service bays needed to be filled in, the gas tanks in front of the structure needed to be removed, and an old sewer line had collapsed.
"All kinds of fun stuff to do," Schulte said one January day as he stood in the dining room of his two-month-old Genessee Royale Bistro. This sunny dining space, which once served up oil changes and engine repairs, has two glass-paned garage doors that can be opened in balmier months to face an enclosed patio. The pinkish walls — the same shade as Schulte's lobster-bisque potage — cast a warm glow on the copper-topped bar on one side of the room, and cozy bistro tables and a collection of mismatched chairs rest on the polished concrete floor.
I say the space could pass as a real Parisian bistro, but my friend Crystal found the ambience somewhat less than Gallic. "It's a gas-station R Bar," she whispered. "But that's not a bad thing. I really like it."
Crystal and I went to the restaurant for a late lunch on a particularly frigid afternoon. The heat in the restaurant was cranked up, and the dining room was packed with an attractive rogue's gallery of West Bottoms characters: a few artists, a musician, a stockbroker, a former pot dealer.
The place attracts characters in part because it has character. Schulte's wife, Tracey, masterminded the décor, with eclectic pieces such as a gilded door frame from a long-razed Hyde Park mansion and other oddball bits and pieces.
For a minute, Schulte considered calling the new breakfast-and-lunch spot Happy Genessee. But the Royale is fancier than Happy Gillis (a former drugstore), and putting the word Hangout in the name of his first restaurant taught him a valuable lesson about time.
"I love that our regulars love to linger there," he says. "But on really busy days, it's not so great. I'm thinking of having hangout hours — from 3:15 to 3:30 p.m."
This isn't a satellite of the luncheonette, then, but a different creature.
"Bill Haw wants to brand this neighborhood as a very distinct community, the Stockyard District," Schulte says. "I couldn't do another Happy Gillis here. It had to be something new and different."
So the name Genessee Royale is a nod to the street — one of the oldest in Kansas City — and to the nearby American Royal facility. But it's pronounced Royale in the French manner, an acknowledgment of the French families that originally settled in this neighborhood.
And for the record: Schulte has no plans to open the Royale for dinner, except on special occasions. "We'll do some wine dinners, maybe," he says. "But I've got a wife and two young daughters. I've got to be home sometime."
Schulte created the restaurant's menu before he hired a chef, Blair Cobbett (formerly of You Say Tomato), to oversee the kitchen. He and Cobbett are collaborating on ideas for the spring menu, but the current menu — with the exception of Cobbett's homemade pies — is very much a Schulte creation. Still, Cobbett wants to bake her own biscuits for the breakfast menu. (Schulte is using a good packaged product for dishes such as the cream-top biscuit, which accompanies a crispy fried-chicken breast and house-made gravy.) I'm all for news like that, even if the chicken-and-biscuit creation is as divine (and divinely fattening) as it is now.