It's not sad just because only two little restaurants remain in business, Ko Ko Dim Sum and Original Pizza, where salty Chinese food and cheese-loaded carb slabs rest buffet-style behind glass, next door to darkened stalls for what used to be Taqueria Casa Paloma and Mr. Goodcents. It's not sad just because, during a middle-of-the-week noon rush, diners sit at a handful of tables, surrounded by dozens of empty ones.
It's so sad because of what used to be here.
Years ago, in the bright, ornate marble room on the eastern end of Union Station's Grand Hall, hundreds of locals and travelers filled tables or sat on counter stools at the Harvey House restaurant. Adding insult to injury, Union Station's crappy food court is named after the legendary diner. On the walls, along with other blown-up photos from the station's glory days, hangs evidence of how much Kansas Citians have lost. God knows there's no people-watching to be done in this barren food court, so the only thing a diner can do is stare up at images of the old, packed Harvey House, every table and stool occupied, long-skirted waitresses pouring coffee behind the counter that ran all the way down the middle of the room.
I've spent the past year wishing for a Harvey House, ever since the Pitch's food writer and most dedicated historian, Charles Ferruzza, reminisced about it while he was reviewing one of the station's other restaurants. "I still wish that the team in charge of Union Station's restoration had considered returning the gorgeous space just to the east of the main entrance -- currently the site of a charmless and cold food court -- to its origins as a moderately priced diner like the Harvey House," Ferruzza wrote ("Train Wreck," October 30, 2003). "The Harvey House wasn't fancy, but its central location was a perfect spot for breakfast, lunch and dinner. By all accounts it was the city's see-and-be-seen joint for decades. My friend Marilyn, who liked to dine there after nightclubbing or going to the theater, remembers it as 'a big and friendly coffee shop that served food quite late,' a place where 'you saw everyone.'"
A place the city needs so badly right now. Over the past year, downtown's revitalization has gained traction. And Union Station narrowly avoided disaster when CEO Turner White resigned and downtown whiz Sean O'Byrne stepped in as interim director. At the same time, the mayor appointed a task force to sort out the chaos and report back this fall. All the while, I've held out a tiny bit of hope. I've conducted unscientific surveys of my friends, who confirm the obvious.
"That would be so cool," they all say when they hear about the old Harvey House. "I would be there all the time."
It's tempting to dig through file drawers at Union Station in search of documentation that would reveal who, exactly, thought it was a good idea to put a food court in the old Harvey House, then track down those people and strangle them. But that might not be necessary anymore. What's so great about O'Byrne is that, so far, he doesn't seem harnessed by typical Kansas City lame-ass thinking. More significant is what he had the guts to proclaim last Thursday night at the Central Branch of the Johnson County Library, during the first of several public forums on the future of the station: "I'm finished listening to consultants," he said. Instead, he's listening to the people who live here and trying his hardest to give them what they want.
And it didn't take long for people at the library to start talking about food. Oh, sure, some of the folks who spoke up at the forum were geezer railroad enthusiasts who droned on about the old days and how it was trains that had made Union Station special and trains that would bring it alive again. News flash to the elders: O'Byrne already knows this; trains are coming back already. Now let's move on, because there's 850,000 square feet of Union Station, and all of it needs to start generating some cash flow. He hopes astronomy hobbyists will help get the planetarium up and running again, so stargazers can sit down now, too. And the lady with the idea about having high school big bands play there, that was great as well, and it'll work wonderfully for already-planned tea dances with swing bands.
But people actually clapped when O'Byrne said, "We're going to completely revamp the food court."
The guy who wanted a barbecue hall of fame? The old man who, near as I could figure, wanted a farmers market with delicacies from all over the world because, he said, "One thing we all use every day is food"? Their gut instincts are in the right place, but they're thinking way too hard. O'Byrne says he wants to put something in the food court that's "quintessentially Kansas City."
For that, he need look no further than the blown-up pictures of the Harvey House.
As it turns out, O'Byrne must have been doing that already. After delivering his 2-hour Union Station pep talk, standing in the rain outside the Johnson County Library on a freezing August night, O'Byrne said he had put out a call to vendors, asking them to submit proposals for what to do in the old Harvey House space. The September deadline he imposed would give them a month to respond.
"Food courts are passé," he said. "An opportunity to bring back a Harvey House would be just phenomenal."
So here's a plea to restaurateurs, entrepreneurs and common-sense dreamers like us. All we want are eggs, hash browns and toast. A cheeseburger and fries. Meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Chocolate cake. Apple pie. A few cups of coffee, late at night, in a booth surrounded by friends.
We'd be there all the time.