I can think of a handful of defunct Kansas City restaurants that I wish had been spared extinction: the Prospect of Westport, Mrs. Peters Fried Chicken, the Lobster Pot, Bretton's. But it's the rare restaurateur who jumps in and keeps an iconic restaurant from closing, particularly in this economy.
That's why young Tony Olson (best known for operating a suburban saloon called Bullfrog's Bar & Grill) and his two business partners, Ben Wine and Bob Baker, deserve a pat on the back for keeping a popular Lee's Summit diner open. The trio took over a 10-year-old venue in downtown Lee's Summit, Neighbor's Café, after the original owners closed it in January.
Neighbor's Café was an unassuming family-style joint, like most of the other dining operations that have come and gone at 104 Southeast Third Street over the past half-century. It was almost a caricature of a small-town diner, something you might see in a rerun of The Andy Griffith Show or Alice. The food was — and remains — the kind of traditional American cooking we now call "home style," though hardly anyone I know still prepares liver and onions or chicken-fried steak at home anymore.
This location was beloved mainly because of its long history. The former Brown's Shoe Store was transformed into Brown's Steakhouse in 1951, kicking off a long run of comfort-food cafés: the Kozy Korner, the Chuck Wagon, Linda's Restaurant, Ida's Place, Ford's Family Restaurant, Thompson's Restaurant and (from 1995 to 2001) Sue's Kitchen. The latter restaurant's owner, Sue Meador, was famous for her cinnamon rolls and her generosity. She gave one of her rolls to every customer who sat down in the dining room.
When Don and Sheryl Roberts and Don's father, Phil Roberts, bought the restaurant in 2001, they kept the cinnamon-roll tradition as a kind of Lee's Summit lagniappe.
A decade later, under its new name — Neighborhood Café — this restaurant is still rolling out the rolls. Vicki Etheridge (no relation to Melissa, that singer from Leavenworth) still bakes trays and trays of the iced rolls every day, as she has for the past 14 years at this restaurant's previous incarnations. "We go through 1,500 rolls a day," she tells me.
The trays of rolls, covered with plastic wrap, are stacked on rolling shelves in a corridor adjacent to the kitchen. You have to pass the rolls on the way to the restrooms, and it's a terrific temptation to want to grab a couple on the return route. A friend of mine tried, and she can tell you that it's not a very good idea. Vicki Etheridge, who also bakes the fruit and cream pies for the Neighborhood Café, is a tough cookie.
Even the new logo for the restaurant is a cinnamon roll. I was eager to try them. As a veteran cinnamon-roll baker myself, I have to say that Etheridge's square, sugary yeast rolls are right on the money: not too sweet, not too puffy, just right eaten with a pat of butter (which I did with one I took home — the café serves little packets of butter substitute).
Olson and his partners have cleaned the place up, repainted the walls, and returned the yellowing newsprint front pages ("Kennedy Dead," "Nixon Resigns") to one wall, and put neatly framed photographs of local war veterans — we're talking World War II here — on another.
This is the kind of restaurant that has a bulletin board mounted near the front door with dozens of business cards and fliers pinned to it, including a selection of religious tracts that customers actually pick up and slip into a pocket or purse. (I took one, "Life Worth Living," myself. I was seduced by this line: "Gadgets, pleasures, and possessions eventually lose their attractiveness." So true, especially gadgets.)