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.
I don't dine at EBT often, but I'm always delighted when I do. The entertainment begins at the front door, where there's a handsome pianist doing his thing on the baby grand. Then a cool blond hostess carries the menus, designed like an artist's portfolio, as if they contained the Dead Sea Scrolls. With surprising grace and agility, black-clad servers maneuver their rolling, tile-topped carts through the dining room for showy tableside dishes, including the Caesar salad pour deux that Billy and I shared. Our young server, Misty, mixed up the ingredients for a garlic vinaigrette dressing (complete with a coddled egg) in a big wooden bowl before adding the chopped romaine and an overabundance of croutons. I liked the salad a lot, but Billy sniffed at the limp greens and was scandalized by all the croutons. "The preparation is a lot more exciting than the finished product,"he complained.
While Billy regaled me with his memories of the original EBT "The elevator operators were ladies shifting this manual lever device, and they never quite got level with the floor" Misty served our dinners: tender slices of smoked duck breast for me, a flaky hunk of pan-blackened escolar splashed with a sassy Creole sauce for Billy. The duck, sided by a slab of au gratin potatoes, was tasty, but there was barely a drizzle of the lingonberry barbecue sauce that the menu had promised. And Billy couldn't get over the fact that his fish, lolling on a bed of black beans and rice, was served in a bowl. "It's not a pasta or a soup," he griped, "and it's too hard to eat this way."
We decided against dessert because, other than the bananas Foster, all of the selections sounded so ordinary. "At the old Emery Bird Thayer Tea Room," Bill said with a sigh, "they served homemade ice cream with a silver pitcher of chocolate sauce." That, alas, was not on the EBT menu.
Whereas Billy was underwhelmed by EBT, my friends Kathi and Susie were far more enthusiastic dinner guests. It had been nearly a decade since they had dined there. "It's really a special-occasion place and kind of expensive," Susie said.
The women liked the whimsy of the new chandeliers and were relieved to find small signature touches (fresh flowers on the table and silvery baskets heaped with buttery, toasted bread crisps) intact. Our server, Gerri, an eight-year veteran here, assured us that even though the look of the place had changed, chef Russ Muehlberger's menu still evoked the old restaurant's continental spirit.
After sharing a tiny grilled flatbread topped with olive tapenade and a blanket of gooey mozzarella, Kathi and Susie split a dish of marinated asparagus dotted with slivers of salty prosciutto and chewy figs. Meanwhile, I was presented a bowl no, more like a small vat almost overflowing with a creamy, wonderful clam chowder. It was enough for four people, but I did a good job on my own.
Kathi couldn't fathom Muehlberger's concept of a parmesan-breaded sea bass in a bowl of pasta with Alfredo sauce, but when it arrived, she was crazy about the gorgeous piece of flaky fish atop fat, twisty fusilloni noodles in a feather-light cream sauce studded with chopped tomatoes, garlic and capers. And Susie, who knows her lamb, insisted that EBT's luscious coriander-grilled chops, served with cranberry relish and a supple shallot marmalade, are the best in the city. The two of them dined modestly, saving half of their dinners to take home, but I greedily pounced on my meal, a meaty shank of braised Berkshire pork slowly cooked, osso-buco style, and sided with a rustic sausage and apple dressing. I cleaned my plate, so I opted to pass on dessert and let my two guests share the bananas Foster.
It was better than dessert, anyway, watching Gerri concoct the 1950s classic sautéing the bananas in a pan with butter, rum, brown sugar and banana liqueur and ladling the caramelized fruit over big scoops of French-vanilla ice cream. Kathi and Susie were entranced with the dish, from the execution to the last creamy drop of melted ice cream.
There's no other restaurant quite like EBT, we all agreed. In fact, we decided there ought to be a second one, using whatever artifacts Crosby Kemper still has stashed away. Maybe it could be downtown. EBT Restaurant EBT Restaurant