Heading north on Prospect, past 27th Street, I was struck by a stretch of vacant lots, where crumbling stone fences and concrete steps that lead to nowhere are vestiges of a time when this part of the city was the suburbs. A yellow brick Pentecostal church, built as a silent-movie house, sits on one side of the street; a former fire station is on the other. And just one block west, on Wabash, is the unassuming whitewashed house where one of America's greatest composers, Virgil Thomson, spent his childhood in the early 1900s.
As Kansas City expanded to the south, the redbrick building at 24th and Prospect, built as Cronkite's Dry Good Store (no relation to the broadcasting legend) during the Taft administration, became a grocery store and even stood vacant for a spell before a group of friends gave the place a new life in 1976. It wasn't three friends, but six, who started serving barbecue, fried chicken, and side dishes there. Three couples -- Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and Mr. and Mrs. Peters -- were the namesake group that opened the restaurant. But after the first year, Jewell Cornelius and his wife, Mattie (who had been a cook at the old Jennie's Italian Restaurant for 26 years), bought their partners out and have run the place as their own ever since.
Three Friends, which is open only on weekends, is a cozy, friendly restaurant that serves the kind of lovingly cooked, rib-sticking fare we now call soul food. The term "soul food" is recent, but the Southern-inspired recipes, such as cornmeal-breaded catfish, crispy fried chicken, and stewed greens, are older than Kansas City.
Three Friends offers its brand of soul food in two forms. There is sit-down service in the main dining room on the first floor and an all-you-can-eat buffet through the French doors, past the cigarette machine, and up the stairs to the second level. In a long, narrow room that once served as the Cronkite family apartments (the polished cherry fireplace mantles are still there), a buffet line is set up along one wall. Steam trays are piled high with rib tips, fried chicken, turkey and dressing, macaroni and cheese, candied yams, and just-baked rolls and corn bread.
In the burgundy-carpeted dining room downstairs, the vinyl-cloaked tables share the sweeping space with a Pac-Man video game (now practically an antique itself) and a hefty jukebox, where a couple of quarters can buy a tune belted out by Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Prince, Patsy Cline, or Billy Ray Cyrus. On the adjacent wall hang framed photographs of the greats and near-greats who have dined at Three Friends over the years, including pop singer Karyn White, former mayor Emanuel Cleaver, and Leave It To Beaver star Tony Dow.
It's easy for any customer to feel like a celebrity here, because the service is friendly and gracious and the food is whisked out of the kitchen almost before customers can unfurl the paper napkins into their laps.
The battered, laminated menus list casual fare (slabs of ribs, barbecue sandwiches, burgers, chili, and salads) and 10 dinner possibilities, two of which (chicken and dressing or steak and rice) are offered only on Sundays. The most expensive dish on the menu, chitterlings ($10.75), is the soul food delicacy sometimes called "chitlins": a pungently fragrant dish of scrubbed and boiled pig intestines cooked with salt, onion, and vinegar. I have sampled them only once -- on a dare -- loaded up with hot pepper sauce. They're chewy and unpleasant-looking. The dish is definitely an acquired taste, and the less adventurous would do better to stick with the more traditional dishes, such as the delicious fried chicken, tender rib tips, and deep-fried shrimp.