Few of those places are left. Most have been replaced by chain operations like Applebee's, now considered by the residents there to be the very zenith of culinary sophistication.
I hated visiting the gray and ugly town as a kid. We usually returned only for funerals or to bid a teary farewell to some wizened relative in the nursing home. Once that grim obligation was done, my mother would toss her damp hankie into her purse and announce cheerily, "Let's eat!" As a treat, we got a second dose of misery -- the gastronomic variety -- chewing overcooked vegetables and gristly beef at one of the hamlet's dingy restaurants. It was straight out of Sinclair Lewis' Main Street: "Savorless people, gulping tasteless food and sitting afterward ... listening to mechanical music."
Lewis published Main Street in 1920, several years before he came to Kansas City to do research for his novel Elmer Gantry. Kansas City was Big Stuff in the mid-1920s, with streetcars, fancy hotels and movie palaces. But over on the Kansas side of the state line, a small town was being created out of little more than a good idea. Originally called Mission Hills Acres, the 160 acres once owned by a Shawnee tribesman named John Prophet was subdivided into 245 building sites by the heirs of Louis Breyfogle, the third owner of the property. The town didn't become Mission until 1938, when the fledgling city already had its own post office, grocery store, barbershop, hardware store and drugstore.
Mission -- more than any of the other twenty cities that make up Johnson County, Kansas -- still feels like a small town, but one with more vitality and charm than the dullsville setting of Sinclair's Main Street. Mission is considered a "bedroom community" (the population is only about 10,000 and covers an area of 2.75 miles), but that gives the tiny borough some sex appeal. And unlike some of its hoity-toity neighbors, Mission still has a movie theater, saloons, interesting little shops and accessible parking. It also has a couple of Johnson County's older restaurants -- the 35-year-old Village Inn and the 33-year-old Don Chilito's.
Only slightly younger is Thai Orchid, one of the friendliest restaurants in Mission, where servers cluck over the customers like doting (and sometimes dotty) relatives. Last month, the Thai Orchid celebrated its 15th anniversary, though I didn't notice any champagne corks popping during any of my three visits. Maybe that's because the place doesn't stock the bubbly stuff in the Tiki-style bar tucked into a back corner of the restaurant. (There is wine, however -- the kind that comes in cardboard boxes.) And although my friend Carol spied a few bottles of liquor on the shelves of the Tiki hut, she discovered that getting a cocktail was impossible.
"Could I get a Cosmopolitan?" she asked our server. He looked back at her blankly, as if she had asked him for a 1957 Plymouth Fury with leather upholstery. "We don't, we can't ... ," he stuttered, pulling away from our table. Our dining companions, Kate and Pat, noted his confusion and worried that Cosmopolitan might have been the Thai expression for bring me your penis on a tray. They ordered wine instead.