The first floor was a smoky saloon, operated from its earliest days by bartender Frank Valerius. In 1900, the proprietor of the Phoenix was Mrs. Linna Laws, who lived above the saloon and, depending on which story you believe, either rented rooms or rented girls. Or maybe both. There was a lot of competition for hotel trade in the neighborhood between Broadway and Central from Seventh Street to 11th. It was packed with upscale places (such as the Hotel Savoy, the only 19th-century survivor that still rents rooms) as well as less fashionable joints such as the long-razed St. Elmo and the Hotel Thalma, or the Exchange Hotel, which hasn't had lodgers for many decades but still stands across the street from the Phoenix.
The amazing thing about the Phoenix Hotel isn't that it survived the changing fortunes of downtown Kansas City but that it never stopped being a gathering place. Frank Valerius quit pouring whiskey before Prohibition, but even without booze, the first floor would be home to some kind of restaurant for the next half-century. Even after the upstairs "hotel" stopped renting rooms, Morris Talman served breakfast and lunch at his Talman Grill from 1948 to 1978.
"The food was good, but it was one of those dumpy, no-frills little luncheonettes that you used to find all over downtown," recalls one friend of mine. "Like Sanderson's."
Today, downtown is sorely lacking low-cost hotels, whorehouses and luncheonettes. But at least the Phoenix Piano Bar & Grill which falls into none of those categories serves a good lunch. Customers can choose among nine sandwiches; a "jazzy" shrimp pasta in a "creamy Jamaican spiced wine sauce"; and a half-dozen salad offerings, including "The Shimmy," with Cajun buffalo chicken. When the weather's balmy, they can even eat outside at a table on the sunny brick sidewalk in front of the 118-year-old building.
I'm partial to the air-conditioned interior, particularly a tall chair at one of the high tables to the left of the piano bar. That's where I recently tried to eat just half of the triple-decker "Special," piled with sliced roast beef and shaved ham, and jack and cheddar cheeses crammed between three pieces of sourdough bread (and sided by a mound of fries).
For dining, I prefer the Phoenix during the lunch shift. At night, the place fills up with a noisy crowd that's come to drink and listen to live jazz. That's how it should be, because the music outclasses the food.
I usually don't go to jazz clubs to eat. For one thing, it's too difficult to have a leisurely, relaxing meal in a setting where one has to scream across the table to maintain a conversation. And more often than not, the food stinks. There are exceptions to my rule, such as Plaza III, which serves excellent food in its lower-level dining area, where entertainers perform several nights a week.
Even if the food is less important than the music at a place like the Phoenix, it deserves credit for at least trying. Downtown Kansas City hasn't had any "supper clubs" combination dining-room-and-entertainment venues since the 1950s. The Phoenix may look like a no-frills jazz joint, but Jaylene Lambert, the third owner of the 18-year-old club, offers more than conventional bar food. Sure, the menu lists burgers, fried mozzarella sticks and nachos, but Lambert is shrewdly wooing the tourist trade with a Kansas City strip and a few Cajun-inspired dishes, too.