Separate Checks 

When longtime Kansas Citians nostalgically recall the glory days of downtown Kansas City -- the movie palaces, the shopping, the restaurants -- they tend to gloss over one of the less pleasant aspects of the urban core's history. Downtown's most alluring attractions were strictly segregated for the first half of the 20th century.

Jazz singer Queen Bey vividly remembers sitting at the "colored" counter at S.S. Kresge's when she was a teenager in the 1950s. The dime store stood where the Town Pavilion and its newest tenant, the Mango Room (see review), are now located. "Downtown was segregated to the bone," Bey says. "You couldn't go see a first-run movie. You couldn't sit down and have a meal at any of the nice restaurants."

People tend to forget that the civil rights movement changed the way people dined -- at least on the surface. A decade later, when I was a teenage busboy in my Indiana hometown, I watched the restaurant's hostess take black diners to the worst tables in the room. That was my first brush with restaurant discrimination, but there would be plenty more.

In the 1980s, a now-bankrupt restaurant chain in Indianapolis fired all of its gay waiters -- half the serving staff -- one day on the grounds that they were attracting "the wrong element" to the place. At roughly the same time, my friend Jamie Rich was sitting with a man and a woman at a Denny's in Kansas City North. His two friends were a mixed-race couple, and their very presence in the dining room was greatly upsetting to two other customers.

"These guys kept looking over at my friends and making comments, until they finally threw their plates on the floor in front of our table and announced, 'That sort of thing isn't done here,'" Rich says. "None of the restaurant's staff did anything. They condoned that behavior by their silence."

Over the years, the Denny's chain has gone to great lengths (and several high-profile lawsuits) to overcome the stigma of discrimination that has hounded it for decades. So has the Nashville-based Cracker Barrel chain, which is still infamous for firing gay employees and for reportedly refusing to serve black diners. Last year, it settled an $8.7 million federal lawsuit alleging mistreatment of black customers. Cracker Barrel recently launched a minority outreach program, but is it too late? Queen Bey says she wouldn't set foot in one.

But she can't wait to visit the Mango Room. "Downtown," she says, "is finally getting real."

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