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.
I've eaten two breakfasts and three lunches at Genessee Royale since it opened in early December, and I loved every meal. And two breakfasts and three lunches are a lot of meals at this restaurant, where the menu isn't what you might call vast. Instead, it's appealingly succinct, a collection of dishes suited to a dining room that's as tidy and compact as a doctor's waiting room — only a lot more lovable.
But what's not to love about a gorgeously light Monte Cristo sandwich made with salty cured ham, slices of milk-braised turkey, a slice of Grùyere and a side of strawberry jam? Or a truly excellent burger, wedged between slices of a Wolferman's English muffin, that's so juicy, it's hard to eat without making a mess?
The coffee is terrific here, too, a cure for the bleary-eyed and the morning-dizzy and the just plain cold who return to life only after a mug of java. Even more life-affirming is smelling that coffee alongside the intoxicating aroma of crispy deep-fried potatoes on the Farmer's Plate. This isn't a prissy urban breakfast concept but a reassuring answer to a farmer's appetite, with slices of excellent hickory-smoked bacon (you can order ham or sausage instead) served with eggs (mine were scrambled and perfectly cooked), a roasted tomato and a heaping mess of spuds.
After that, I needed something sweet, so I went back for the $4 coffeecake. Yeah, I know, the price sounds a little steep. But what you get is an individual loaf of old-fashioned sour-cream breakfast cake (I'd swear it's from an old Good Housekeeping recipe), served warm with butter. Skip the dry toast — the only weak component of the Farmer's Plate — and save room for this instead.
The egg-and-cheese sandwich, an upscale variation on the McMuffin idea, is served on a Wolferman's muffin. It's a staple of both the breakfast and the lunch menus. It's also beloved by vegetarians, who opt not to order it with bacon or sausage. (Me? I wanted it with both.)
Crystal, a vegetarian, didn't want to give up a side dish just to keep kosher, so she went for the Farmer's Market Vegetable Tartine. That dish sounds a good deal more glamorous than it is. But she adored it: an open-faced sandwich that plops roasted vegetables on a slice of garlic-rubbed, toasted Farm to Market bread. On that day, the vegetables were Brussels spouts, glazed onions and slices of bright-orange butternut squash. Crystal asked me to sample it, but I demurred. I love open-faced sandwiches, even vegetable versions, but only if they're bubbling with melted cheese or something equally decadent. The tartine just looked too healthy for me.
Crystal ate her sandwich daintily, with knife and fork. I blew past her, wolfing my burger down along with a bowl of the soup du jour, a cream-of-cauliflower concoction that was so flavorful, I couldn't believe it hadn't been prepared with chicken stock. The server insisted that the base was vegetable stock, but I suspected fowl play; Schulte later confirmed that the slightly grainy, gloriously rich soup had indeed been prepared with chicken stock.
The rustic-looking pies were beautiful, but Crystal was more intrigued by another dessert, the one called Coffee Gourmand. It's a tiny mocha pot de crème — emphasis here on crème rather than coffee — sided with pretty, little house-made candies: cocoa-dusted truffles and a shiny molasses-pecan bar. The pot de crème was gone in three bites (the largest mine), which was a good thing because the lush custard left both of us slightly woozy. I had to drink a cup of the robust house coffee, the macho-sounding Bull Mountain Blend, just to counteract the richness of the coffee dessert.
We had a leisurely lunch but didn't linger too long. Schulte's newest bistro is a lot of things, but it isn't a hangout. Not yet, anyway. Once the warmer spring afternoons return, though, and the patio is in full swing, this joint may become one of the hottest hangouts in town. After all, I plan to hang out there myself.