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.
A copy of the old Westport Room menu was embedded in the plastic tabletop where I sat with Martha, Richard and Kelly on another day.
Martha had never dined in the Westport Room but recalled eating in the Grill as a child in the 1960s. "It was dying, dirty, awful," she said. She marveled at the beauty of the renovated room, with its original marble floors and skylight ceiling.
The space can fill up pretty quickly on weekend mornings, but it hasn't caught on with the weekday breakfast crowd yet. Kathy, a veteran waitress (and former saloon owner), told me that the lunch business is pretty steady; the staff expects things to be a lot more hectic with the Bodies Revealed exhibition.
Bill Crooks told me that he hasn't had time to tinker with the menu yet, other than to upgrade the food quality. The dozen or so featured dishes on the breakfast menu are traditional diner fare: excellent fluffy pancakes, baseball-sized biscuits smothered in creamy gravy with chunks of sausage, and the standard omelet choices. The coffee's good and strong, though the thudding background music was somewhat jarring during my visits.
"It sounds like a sonogram," Ned said as he tore off a piece of a big cinnamon roll. Too big, actually: The pastry's outer rings were as dry as the Sahara. The pecan roll was just as big and dry and was served do-it-yourself style, with two plastic cups of warm caramel sauce. As I've written before, bigger is not always better in the world of breakfast pastries.
The kitchen offers a different "daily creation" six days a week, though Ned wishes all of those blue-plate specials were offered every day. He would love to have tried the chicken potpie — available only on Wednesdays — on the chilly Thursday when we had lunch. I ordered the Thursday creation, a thick hunk of roasted Missouri turkey on toast and slathered with a savory gravy. (The manager insisted that the bird was raised somewhere in the state but couldn't say just where.) The salad that came with the special was practically nonexistent, so I was glad I'd also ordered a bowl of creamy tomato-basil soup.
Ned wasn't all that impressed with his hamburger, which arrived in a shiny metal basket sided with what we agreed were fabulous onion rings. "It's OK," he said of the burger. "Nothing extraordinary." Perhaps it was the surroundings that made him expect an extraordinary hamburger. Or maybe it was nostalgia: Many of the eight burger variations are named for the trains that used to rumble in and out of Union Station.
At lunch on the other occasion, our server encouraged Martha to order that day's special. I'm happy to report that the thick slab of meatloaf with mashed potatoes and brown gravy lived up to our high expectations.
I felt daring and ordered a Monte Cristo sandwich (called a Monte Christo here), which rarely shows up on a diner menu these days and is usually some half-realized variation of the real thing. But the Harvey House version is the classic thick, soft sandwich made with thinly sliced turkey, ham and Swiss cheese, dipped in egg batter and grilled. Richard ordered a soup-and-salad combo; he loved the tomato-basil soup but was, like me on that previous visit, underwhelmed by the salad. Fussy Kelly was easy to please for a change, ordering pancakes, eggs and bacon, which are served all day.
Richard couldn't resist a big ol' wedge of coconut-cream pie — a product of Golden Boy Bakeries, which supplies most of the diners in town. It was great, as Golden Boy pies always are.
"You like those pies?" Crooks asked me later.
Love 'em. They're not so good for my figure, but after eating diner food, I always keep my body unrevealed.