A friend asked me if I was planning to see the new Bodies Revealed exhibition at Union Station. "Are you kidding?" I answered. "I can barely stand looking at my own body, let alone a bunch of preserved cadavers that are probably in better shape than I am." Unless it's a burlesque show, I prefer most bodies to be wearing clothes.
Besides, I've been more interested in the resuscitation of the Harvey House Diner. Several months ago, Union Station officials gave the boot to Treat America, an institutional food purveyor that had been running the diner in a space once occupied by the legendary Fred Harvey's railroad-station restaurant. PB&J Restaurants Inc., creators of Grand Street Café and Yia Yia's Eurobistro, is now in charge, and the changes have been, shall we say, revealing.
When I first visited the Harvey House Diner in 2006, I was appalled at the less-than-mediocre food and the incompetent service. I told my friends that Union Station would have been wiser to bring in a few Denny's or Waffle House staffers to untangle the obvious chaos in the kitchen and on the floor. In this day and age, I never thought I'd hear a third-rate waitress snap, "That's not my station." A Harvey Girl she was not.
PB&J founders Bill Crooks and Paul Khoury have done some impressive housecleaning, literally and figuratively. I've recently eaten two breakfasts and two lunches at the Harvey House, and though the service needs a little polishing, the food quality has improved dramatically. It actually comes to the table hot. That might sound like faint praise, but a reputation for bad service and lukewarm food can close a restaurant pretty fast.
And that would have been heartbreaking for this rehabbed historic spot for which recent life has been tenuous enough. An interesting footnote — interesting to me, anyway: A few months after the original Harvey House Grill in Union Station closed in 1968, another iconic Kansas City gathering spot, the Folly Theater, stopped hiring strippers and started showing dirty movies. A local bon vivant who loved both places tells me that those two unconnected events "marked the beginning of the end of nightlife in downtown Kansas City."
Now that nightlife (if not strippers and stag films) is slowly returning to downtown, it seems like a good time for the return of a good old-fashioned diner. Unfortunately, this Harvey House doesn't stay open late, so it won't become an after-hours destination, serving the late-night "snacks" that Harvey House patrons of the 1920s and '30s loved so much: caviar sandwiches and chicken à la king.
A wall of blown-up vintage photographs displays several shots of the Harvey House in its glory years, when it was one of the few dining establishments in Kansas City that was strictly nonsmoking (it still is). The modern revision looks remarkably similar, though booths have been installed along one wall and the plates and serving dishes are now all heavy plastic. (C'mon, people. Even Chubby's uses real china.)
One day at lunch, Ned looked around in wonder. "It's kind of a paradox, isn't it, that this place serves blue-collar diner food in this ornate, neoclassic space with gorgeous moldings and balconies?"
I reminded him that, from the day it opened in 1914 until its final days as kind of a seedy, forlorn joint a half-century later, the Harvey House Grill was a short-order dining spot that had been known as the "lunchroom." A fancy dining spot, the Westport Room, had been next door to the Harvey House and was elegant enough to offer jellied consommé, crêpes suzette and the famous chicken Maciel.