At Chappell's Restaurant and Sports Museum in North Kansas City, the food and the exhibitions share equal billing. Chappell's really is a museum, albeit with jersey-wearing waitresses instead of docents and no curatorial logic to the manner in which Jim Chappell has displayed his massive collection of sports memorabilia. Sports equipment from the nineteenth century hangs next to photographs, framed ticket stubs and athletic gear of much more recent vintage, all assembled helter-skelter on every surface -- including the ceiling -- in the warren of dining rooms and hallways.
A person doesn't have to give a damn about sports (I certainly don't) to be impressed by Chappell's wild assortment of stuff. Sure, the hundreds of school pennants and football helmets, the posters and geegaws, the framed newspaper articles and magazine covers, the gilded trophies (including a 1973 World Series award given to Chappell by the late Charlie O. Finley) and bronzed cleats are something to see. But it's the more oddball items that tickled me, such as an autographed photo of a semiyouthful Barbara Walters or, better yet, the 1955 menu from a long-razed but legendary New York eatery called Toots Shor's.
I sat beneath that menu on my first visit to Chappell's, drinking an iced tea and dipping a huge fried onion ring into a little tub of ranch dressing. The Chappell's menu, which is solidly focused on traditional Midwestern fare such as steaks and burgers, seemed practically rustic compared with the Hungarian goulash and frog legs meunière served by the baseball-lovin' Toots. At his place, a thick sirloin went for five bucks and the 28 dessert offerings included Jell-O and Meringue Chantilly for 65 cents.
While Toots Shor's was famous for its burly owner's habit of drinking and gabbing with his star-studded clientele, Chappell is a taller, thinner and less volatile front man. On each of my three visits, I watched him work the room with the deftness of a seasoned politician.
"The place was supposed to be a political and sports bar when I first opened," Chappell told me later. "But over the years, as I started collecting more sports memorabilia, I moved all the political stuff to my office."
And don't you dare call his place a sports bar in front of Chappell. "It is not a sports bar," he says firmly. "There's no big-screen TV, no happy hour. No loud guys in tennis shoes, drinking beer. It's a restaurant and a museum."
Surprisingly, it's a good restaurant. The food is uncomplicated, but who wants fancy when you're eating under Norm Sieber's thirty-year-old uniform? You expect imagination and artistic presentation from the kitchen of Cafe Sebastienne's Jennifer Maloney; at Chappell's, you expect hearty, robust and all-American fare that reflects the high-testosterone quality of the exhibitions.
Okay, there is quiche -- which real men eat at Chappell's, because the place serves a different cheesy, bubbly version every day. (It was chicken, tomato and basil, with a decently flaky crust, on the night I sampled it.) But quiche hasn't been considered an exotic dish since the 1970s, when taco salad (another Chappell's standard) made the scene.
In fact, the restaurant's appetizer selection has most of the snacks you'd find in an upscale stadium cocktail lounge: nachos, potato skins, fried chicken fingers. On two occasions I was lured to excess by a waitress who seductively described the two combination baskets. One showed up heaped with onion rings, chicken fingers and mozzarella sticks, the other with rings, lightly spiced chicken wings and crunchy deep-fried jalapeño peppers stuffed with a hot and gooey glob of herbed cheese. They were cholesterol festivals, to be sure, but such sporty combinations that I cast aside health concerns and practically wrestled with my friend Bob over the last onion ring. He won.
And it's not all fried fare -- salads include a boring char-broiled "chicken lite" and a platter of steamed vegetables for the weight-conscious. For everyone else, however, sandwiches are bulked up with meat. A superb Philly steak comes generously laden with sliced roast beef, sautéed peppers and onions, mushrooms and a thick blanket of provolone cheese. The house burger gets a modestly glam treatment, draped in bacon and melted Swiss and served on a thick English muffin. And a "London broil" sports three slices of paper-thin roast beef au jus, accompanied by a mound of green beans seasoned with onion and bits of tomato. Every Friday and Saturday there's a nice juicy hunk of prime rib.
On one visit my friend Steven quickly polished off a plate-sized portion of chicken-fried steak drenched in a peppery cream gravy. (I thought the cut of beef was a shade tough and chewy.) And on another night, I watched Bob make short order of Jim's Trio Sampler, a platter loaded with tender little pork riblets (generously brushed with Gates barbecue sauce), grilled chicken strips lightly glazed with teriyaki sauce, and tiny fried popcorn shrimp.
If only overeating were a sporting event, Chappell's would make an excellent venue for the competition. As if the athlete-sized dinners weren't enough, there also are desserts to contend with. Except for the cheesecake, they're all made in the Chappell's kitchen, and the two I tasted were knockouts: a hot, tart apple cobbler made with walnuts and caramel and topped with a baseball-sized mound of ice cream, and a giant, even-more-decadent slab of Snicker Bar Pie, made with ice cream, chopped-up candy bars and hot fudge in a cookie crust.
Servers are young and adorable, though none is particularly sports savvy and they can get tongue-tied over questions about the items displayed on the walls. "People ask us a lot of questions about this stuff. We usually run and get a manager or somebody who might know the answer," one of the waitresses confessed to me in a whisper. "Most of the servers here are girls and don't know anything about sports."
Don't worry. Jim Chappell is happy to tell his patrons all about Kansas City sports history, including the tale of the short-lived Kansas City Packers and Kansas City Cowboys or the exact location of the old Municipal Stadium. Chappell's may be the only place in town where you can get a history lesson along with three kinds of fruit cobbler. That's what I call a cultural institution.