All aboard Kansas City's diners.

Mouthing Off 

All aboard Kansas City's diners.

Diners' club: So what's the real difference between the $6.99 grilled patty melt with french fries served at the shiny Uptown Diner (4800 W. 119th Street) in Leawood and the $3.85 patty melt with fries at the greasier, more lovable Town Topic Diner (2021 Broadway)? There's the obvious answer ($3.14), the somewhat less obvious answer (about 17 miles), the quirky answer (the Uptown Diner uses marbled rye bread; Town Topic uses regular rye), and one cold, hard fact: Town Topic is a true diner and the Uptown Diner is a suburban shopping mall restaurant that pretends to be a diner.

The Uptown's charade is pretty good: It has a counter with stools (though people rarely sit there), the menu includes blue plate specials, and the place serves a hearty chicken-noodle soup and chocolate malts made with hand-dipped (rather than soft-serve) ice cream. But the charm is artificial -- pure Disney, in fact -- right down to the servers' wearing faux work shirts (they all look like tidy gas-station attendants) with fake embroidered name patches.

"Uh, no, my name's not really Elvis," stammered one waiter, blushing as he looked down at the patch on his chest. "I'm Hispanic!"

Diners are traditionally defined by the fact that they look like railroad dining cars (see the Chubby's review on the previous page). "Take away the look of the diner and you have the common coffee shop, café, or luncheonette," writes John Mariani in America Eats Out.

The metro area is home to three Town Topic restaurants (the other two are at 1900 Baltimore in downtown Kansas City and 6018 Johnson Drive in Mission), but only the Broadway location stays open 24 hours. It really looks like a dining-car-diner, too, with a single stretch of white-and-gold plastic counter and seven stools (three other stools face the window). The space is tiny, but there's a big jukebox (mostly country music, although Percy Sledge and Rod Stewart get a couple of hits), as well as a 1960s-era cigarette machine and a pinball game squeezed inside the narrow building. Customers order off of menu boards mounted just under the ceiling; a separate board lists the featured pies. There's always chocolate and coconut cream, lemon meringue, and, more recently, an "almond-chocolate delit," whatever that is.

"We don't bake the pies here, honey," Shirley, the grill cook, said as she threw a hamburger patty on the sizzling grill. "There's no oven in here. We get our pies from Golden Boy, in Johnson County."

The pies are sweet and creamy, especially after a double cheeseburger or the $2.80 breakfast special (two eggs, hash browns, and toast).

The City Market also boasts two real diners: Cascone's Grill (20 E. Fifth Street) and a former gas-station-turned-eatery, the City Diner (301 Grand), which are always especially bustling on Saturday mornings. Both serve real Italian sausage with their breakfasts (you can get a side of marinara at Cascone's to slather on your eggs). Cascone's has better pancakes (big as a plate, light, and fluffy), but the City Diner has wonderful softball-size cinnamon rolls, served warm and gooey with sugary icing. The food is good and cheap, but bring cash -- neither joint accepts credit cards or checks.

And the Corner Café over in Riverside is an honest-to-goodness diner, but without the dining-car shape. Despite the counter and stools near the kitchen, most people wait and wait for tables to open so they can load up on this cozy restaurant's filling, inexpensive breakfasts (almost all under $4) or eye-popping dinner platters, such as four pieces of crispy, lip-smacking fried chicken, three side dishes, and a warm, yeasty dinner roll that stands nearly 5 inches tall, all for $8.29. You'll feel like a dining car yourself when you roll out of the doors.

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