It never occurred to me to ask any of the employees at Lawrence's historic Eldridge Hotel why the restaurant there is called Ten. I recently had a couple of fine meals at this venerable Massachusetts Street lodge — the building dates back to 1925 — and asking about the restaurant's unusual name must have slipped my mind.
But wait! The reason is because I never actually ate at Ten! On two visits to Lawrence, my friends and I arrived just as the place was closing up after a shift. The first time, we were too late for Sunday brunch, so we were shuffled across the hall into the equally pleasant but much less formal Jayhawker Lounge.
One of the servers explained that on Sundays, lunch is served in the Jayhawker so that the staff can tidy up Ten for the dinner shift. Or something like that. By then, I was so faint with hunger that she could have said they were getting ready to launch a space shuttle from the dining room. Of course I didn't mind eating in the bar.
As it turns out, the Jayhawker serves the same menu as Ten, and the food comes out of the same kitchen.
"If the main dining room is called Ten, why isn't the bar called Five?" asked my friend Ned as he, Bob and I were escorted to a table next to a sunny window in the tile-floored bar.
The server handing us the menus smiled but didn't comment. She fled before Ned noted that his paper menu — a single legal-sized sheet listing lunch and dinner items that were a good deal fancier than I'd expected — was soiled with dried food. "You would think," he said acidly, "that with menus this cheap, they could toss the nasty ones away."
The good news was that one of the waiters (who looked too old to be a student, though he said he was still at KU) quickly brought out a silvery basket filled with warm, yeasty rolls and flavored butter, which I usually detest. That day, I was so famished that I overlooked the faint maple sweetness and slathered it on a roll. After two bites, I felt myself coming back to life.
"Look out the window," Bob hissed. We all turned to stare at a paunchy middle-aged man standing on the sidewalk, looking suspiciously nervous and checking his wristwatch a lot.
Perhaps inspired by Lawrence's interesting street life, Bob let his imagination run wild. "I'll bet he's waiting for his date to show up. Someone he met on the Internet. And he's going to cheat on his wife for the first time, and he drove all the way here from Eudora to meet her. Or him."
The man suddenly looked in our direction and noticed we were staring at him. He scowled, and we all blushed and returned to staring at the menu.
"Oh, look, they have truffle-and-parmesan fries," Ned said brightly. "Let's get some."
Our official server, a pretty young woman named Kelly, didn't miss a beat when Ned asked, "Why is this place named after the Jayhawkers? The real Jayhawkers were terrorists — they killed children!"
Kelly laughed and said something to the effect that the lounge had more to do with the symbol of the school (which adopted the mythical bird as its mascot in 1912) and less to do with the hell-raisers of the 1850s.
On a more genteel note, beef-loving Bob surprised us by ordering grilled salmon as his lunch entrée. Ned chose a meaty portobello mushroom cap grilled and topped "Oscar style" with crabmeat and a light bearnaise. I polished off a golden hunk of chicken that sported a sexy pesto rub. (Many of the seafood, beef and poultry dishes here are rubbed or crusted with various ingredients.) And we shared two "family-sized" side dishes, fighting over the last crispy and wonderful french fries, splashed with truffle oil and sprinkled with grated parmesan. The macaroni and cheese was a clinker, though. "It's macaroni soup," Ned complained as he lifted a spoonful of sodden pasta.
"It's usually not that runny," said Kelly, whose enthusiasm for it had sold us on the dish in the first place.
For dessert, we all took a few bites of a big, fudgy slab of chocolate layer cake that looked and tasted a lot like the standard-issue dessert sold by one of the big local food purveyors. It was costly and unmemorable. "The whipped cream isn't real," Ned sniffed. That didn't stop him from eating most of it.
More than a month passed before I returned, this time with Deb and Franklin. It was another Sunday afternoon, later this time, but we were still too early for the dinner shift at Ten. Once again, we were shown a table in the bar.
Looking around at the bar side, Deb noted that it used to be a retail store when she was a waitress at the Eldridge Hotel in the 1970s. Way back then, the Eldridge had a conventional little hotel restaurant. Deb was fired for hurling a tureen of soup at one of the cooks, who had insulted her. "I'd do it again, too," she said.
Happily for all of us, Deb loved the current dining room's signature soup — a rich, silken tomato bisque — so there was no tureen throwing that evening. Franklin was equally enraptured by the potage du jour, a hearty chili of chopped Kansas City strip, roasted tomatoes, onions and black beans.
Deb and I also shared a superb Ten chopped salad, a jumble of icy greens, bacon, pasta, turkey and crumbles of blue cheese. Franklin liked the salad so much, he ordered one just for himself.
And he proclaimed his (surprisingly inexpensive) 14-ounce Kansas City strip to be one of the finest he'd eaten. It was beautifully grilled, succulent and juicy.
Deb passed up the corn-and-crab-encrusted sea bass to sample another crusty number. The parmesan-coated tilapia arrived seriously overcooked, but she ate it anyway (I might have thrown it at someone), along with much of my dinner, a fabulous "Wellington" of puff pastry wrapped around asparagus, squash, mushroom and brie. Bravely, we also ordered the macaroni and cheese again, and this time it was pretty good — not great, but not soupy.
As a finale, we shared a warm and gooey chocolate lava cake with ice cream and listened to a story about why our waitress flies back to Wisconsin to have her hair done. (No one around here is good enough, she said.) We drove back to Kansas City, feeling satisfied with a fine meal and thanking God for our local hairstylists.
It took me a few more days to come to my senses and call the Eldridge Hotel to find out why the restaurant is called Ten. The desk clerk set me straight: It's the number of the basketball jersey worn by Bobby Douglass, a KU football star and 1968 All-American.
It's a great name for a restaurant. I hope to eat there someday.