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.
The crispy, juicy chicken ($6.30 for a dinner that includes two side dishes) at Three Friends is just as good as the Stroud's variety, and the catfish (the whole damn fish served up breaded and fried crusty and golden, $6.85) is as luscious and juicy as any you'll find. It's worth wading through all those needlelike bones to get at the flaky meat.
The rib tips dinner ($5.65) is a tidier way to sample the excellent Three Friends barbecue, basted in a mildly sweet sauce. There's a decent-size grilled T-bone steak ($8.75), which goes well with a big plastic tumbler of tart lemonade (no liquor is served here) and a little bowl of boiled black-eyed peas.
Black-eyed peas made their arrival in the U.S. in 1674 and have been a Southern cooking staple ever since, although the starchy little beans actually need a splash of hot sauce to give them any bite. The other side dishes more than hold their own: elbow macaroni in a rich and gooey cheese sauce, coleslaw, sticky candied yams, and boiled collard greens. A slab of the crumbly (and not too sweet) corn bread tastes best dipped into the slightly salty, soothing collard-green juice known as "potlikker," which supposedly has miraculous rejuvenating qualities. I certainly felt a lot better after gobbling it up: greens, juice, corn bread, and all. Ask for both the corn bread and a big, flaky dinner roll, which soaks up a big pat of butter and literally melts in your mouth.
If you're lucky, dinner will arrive with a bottle of fiery hot sauce and a glass jar filled with home-pickled hot peppers. The peppers are the soul food version of an aperitif: Refresh a fading appetite by biting down on a pepper and following it with a slug of ice-cold lemonade, then resume pouncing on a meaty chicken leg or a big chunk from a tender pork chop.
After you finish such a fine meal, sit back and take a breather before launching into the lavishly portioned desserts. It's a good time to admire the painted mural of splashing waterfalls and autumn trees that wraps around the dining room walls, just under the original wooden ceiling (you can still see the markings of where the long-vanished display windows used to be), with whirling fans and big bronze chandeliers.
The desserts at Three Friends are as filling and unapologetically rich as the dinner dishes are. There's cheesecake ($1.50), freshly baked pies ($1.45 for a good slice), and better yet, a hot bowl of juicy peach cobbler ($1.20) topped off with a scoop of ice cream ($0.75 extra). A massive slice of German chocolate cake ($1.50) is served steaming hot, which gives the coconut filling an unexpected bit of crunch. It's another dessert that's best topped with ice cream.
The style of fare served at Three Friends is now known as "comfort food" because it evokes memories of big family Sunday suppers or orgiastic holiday banquets, when it was not only acceptable to stuff yourself silly but also encouraged. It's a style of eating from another time, another place, but it's well worth traveling back to it, if only to soothe the soul.
Contact Charles Ferruzza at 816-218-6925 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
THREE FRIENDS RESTAURANT 2461 Prospect, KCMO, 816-231-9753
Hours: Friday, 5 p.m.-3 a.m.; Saturday, noon-3 a.m.; Sunday, noon-6 p.m.