Someone probably had that same thought 34 years ago this week, when a construction crew was cleaning up a jumble of red brick, terra cotta and Lake Superior brownstone from a demolition site at 11th Street and Grand. That's where the seven-story Emery Bird Thayer department store had come tumbling down in the name of urban progress. At one time the biggest retailer in Missouri, the mammoth carriage-trade emporium had outlived its usefulness by the end of the 1960s. Thanks to the new shopping malls and discount stores closer to their homes, customers rarely bothered with downtown Kansas City. Downtown still had a faint heartbeat when the Emery Bird Thayer building was razed, but the store's demolition was not a good omen.
Crosby Kemper II built a shiny new United Missouri Bank tower where the department store once stood. But he'd saved a few odds and ends from the 83-year-old building (and the store's 1968 going-out-of-business sale), and when it came time to build another UMB building in 1980 this time in the suburbs out south Kemper pulled those architectural relics out of storage. In creating a ground-floor dining room, restaurant designers incorporated two brass elevator cages, a few leaded-glass windows, column ornaments of carved brownstone, and a fountain. In tribute to the old department store, the dining room was named EBT.
The nostalgia angle has always been a drawing card for this restaurant, despite attempts to distance itself from the inaccurate perception that it's a museum with food. When I last reviewed EBT ("Time Honored," March 28, 2002), then-chef Leo Geismar, who's now at the New Theatre Restaurant, told me that EBT really stood for "eclectic bold taste." But for those born after Emery Bird Thayer was torn down, the restaurant might be more familiar as "the place where people eat in the elevators."
If they even know it exists. In an attempt to connect with younger diners who don't give a damn about Kansas City's retail history, EBT has undergone a stylish renovation. The elevator-cage banquettes and the brownstone monuments remain, but the fountain has been shoved back into storage. Out went the palm trees and the elevated cocktail lounge; in came silky Persian-style chandeliers that float like kites over the dining room and impressionistic metallic sculptures that are mounted over the bar. The sculptures, I was told, represent roses the passion of EBT owner Ed Holland.
"Roses? I thought they were smashed sombreros," whispered Billy, one of my few friends who can remember shopping and dining at this restaurant's namesake. As he put it, "I'm old enough to have had my picture taken with Santa Claus there."
Billy, 76, took a quick survey of the other patrons and asked, "Don't young people eat here? Almost everyone in here is practically my age."
Not everyone. Among the Geritol set were a couple of well-dressed thirtysomethings and a young family or two. And me! There's still a sense of stuffy formality about this dining room, partly because of the prices I've found it's never cheap to dine inside a bank. But I like stuffy formality when it involves tableside cooking (EBT is one of the few places in town that still treats Caesar salads and bananas Foster as performance art), along with piano players tinkling show tunes and busboys who make dirty plates disappear like magicians.