I recently stopped in to take a look at Fran's Classic Diner, the new 24-hour restaurant in the Power & Light District, and I decided it's really a diner in name only. It looks much more like a spiffy 1960s airport coffee shop — that's actually part of its charm — complete with porthole windows peeking into the kitchen. The menu leans more toward upscale coffee-shop fare, too.
Real diner fare dates back to the early 1900s, when such venues had evolved from rough-and-tumble lunch wagons to something simpler but snazzier — more like railroad dining cars, as restaurant historian John Mariani has pointed out, with similar amenities: booths, ventilators, exhaust fans and toilet facilities. "All of which," Mariani notes, "helped make them fit establishments for women to dine in."
All good diners still share some characteristics: breakfast all day; snappy service; inexpensive dinners that typically include soup or salad, a vegetable and a roll. And the kind of hearty, pretentious cooking that we now call home style because most of us probably don't prepare dishes such as chicken-fried steak or roast beef and gravy at home. Why would we? It's cheaper and less complicated to order such meals in a restaurant.
The classic diner is also open 24 hours (as Fran's is), though there aren't many of those left in Kansas City. The closing of Independence's Heriford Grill and midtown's venerable Nichols Lunch earlier this decade really marked the end of an era that began nearly a century ago with the H.S. McClintock Restaurant, the city's first 24-hour dining spot, which operated a few blocks from where Fran's Classic Diner is now.
Family-owned diners were once an integral part of downtown life, but these days they're difficult to find in the urban core. They're plentiful in the suburbs, though. Take, for example, the little melon-colored building on U.S. Highway 40 that's now called Rob's Café. Some kind of diner has operated in this location, adjacent to a motel, for nearly 40 years; it has been Rob's Café only since April.
"It was Debbie's Diner for a long, long time," explained our sassy, red-haired waitress, Marge, as she poured iced tea into a plastic tumbler. "But Debbie was killed in a car accident right in front of here on Highway 40. So Rob Griffey took it over. He used to be a cook at Little Richard's Family Restaurant in Independence. He really cleaned the place up. It's got all new appliances now. Everything's homemade. You can't beat the food here."
I had fallen in love with the place on the morning I stepped in — one of the cooks was complaining that he had squeezed all the orange juice by hand that morning. "Our Jack LaLanne juicer was on the fritz," he said.
The spick-and-span dining room is relatively small, with fewer than a dozen tables, and the lunch crowd tends to be mostly men: a lot of muscular, blue-collar workers. The waitresses, who wear hot-pink T-shirts, are restaurant veterans and pros. While you're looking over the laminated menu, they aren't afraid to tell you what dishes they like and the ones they don't care for.
When I had lunch there last week, I was torn between that day's special, lasagna with a salad and garlic toast for $6.50 (featured dishes are written in marker on a whiteboard), or the restaurant's signature Tom Boy Sandwich, a ground-beef patty grilled medium, dipped in batter and deep-fried "to a golden crisp" and topped with grilled onions.
"Honey, it's a great burger," Marge assured me.
My friend Bob had ordered a patty melt (the bread was a little scorched) and a side of excellent steak fries. After I finished a cup of "Tex-Mex soup" (chili, really), I decided to tempt fate and order the battered, deep-fried burger. It was crunchy and a little dry, and probably needed a little dab of mayo. Not bad, but I would never order one again. Ever.