Show me a town where people like to drink, and I'll show you at least one 24-hour restaurant.
Following a night of drunken debauchery, you need a place to unwind and sober up, a way station on the road back to sanity — or at least on the road home. Such a place must offer certain things: greasy sausage, runny fried eggs, big and absorbent pancakes. A messy plate containing any of these — better yet, all of them — helps soak up the insult you've paid your system all evening. Like a powerful microbe eating away an oil spill.
Believe me, I know.
Kansas City has a long and proud history as a hard-drinking, saloon-loving town, the only place that legally banned Bible-toting, hatchet-wielding, bar-smashing Carry Nation from re-entering its perimeters after one of her rampages. We've had all-night restaurants of some sort for at least a century. I, for one, would like to have frequented the R.S. McClintock New Cafeteria, at 11th Street and Walnut, which gave your great-grandpa a chance to sober up in the hours before he had to button his collar for Sunday services.
Today, though, there aren't many places ready to comfort you in your hour of bleariness. Sure, the Town Topic at 2021 Broadway is a beloved icon. No matter what time you stumble in — dead drunk or sober as a monk — there's a friendly face and an order of buttered toast waiting for you. It's also the oldest 24-hour diner left in the city, and maybe the last still embracing a concept that has fallen out of favor.
How far out of vogue has the all-night diner fallen? Consider the ill-fated Fran's Restaurant. It should have been a no-brainer, positioned as it was in the Power & Light District. Instead, it deepened the case against diners. From the moment it opened its doors, in 2009, to its unmourned closing three years later, Fran's was awful — poor food, high prices, indifferent service. Diner food doesn't need to be outstanding. (It almost never is, but if your order arrives at the table fast and hot, that's grace enough.) And no one expects first-rate service at a counter that's still open at 3 a.m. But a diner does have to be friendly and cheap, and Fran's was neither.
I come now to the city's two new diners, which have opened in midtown with far more potential than Fran's ever had. Huddle House, the first local outpost of an Atlanta-based chain, serves all the items on its shiny plastic menu 24 hours a day. A few blocks away, at 39th Street and Southwest Trafficway, the restaurant formerly known as Nichols Lunch (a 24-hour refuge of warmth and tater tots that lasted eight decades) has been reborn as the family-owned Sosa's 39th Street Diner. It serves until very late Sunday through Wednesday and stays open 24 hours on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
Both restaurants sit in close proximity to Chubby's on Broadway, which has had relatively little competition the past 20 years for full-service late-night dining, despite its migraine-inducing acoustics and brutal lighting. Even the dewy-faced 20-somethings who favor the place look like cadavers there.
By contrast, the two new restaurants are clean and polished, qualities that are bound to fade but, for now, make Chubby's seem grungier and more foreboding than it really is. But there are other differences, and some of them aren't so positive.
Let's start with Huddle House, which opened quietly last month in an odd location (the former Midwest Cyclery space) for a restaurant — or for anything else. There's no parking lot yet ("We're getting that together," one server explained to me), and finding a curb space on this stretch of Broadway after midnight can be a little daunting. Inside, the space is cozy (translation: too small), but the ambience is that of a hospital coffee shop. Not that any hospital in America would offer its patrons the fattening, artery-clogging dishes on Huddle House's menu.
But like I said before, that's what you want at a place like this, and what Huddle House serves is traditional American diner food: breakfast platters, burgers built for two hands, chicken-fried steak. There's a fast-food feel to the presentation, though. Salad dressings are in plastic squeeze packets, and the dinner of fried shrimp (at least that's what the round, crunchy fried nuggets are supposed to be) rolls off the line with a sealed plastic container of Marzetti's cocktail sauce.
The burgers are unexceptional. The patty melt is a mushy imitation of the real thing. And the scrambled eggs have the color and consistency of something forgotten from a morning buffet.
Still, it's hard not to root for Huddle House. The service is cheery (if not very attentive), and the $14 breakfast platter is so generous that it doesn't leave room on the table for your elbows. It's not one plate, baby, but six — at one meal, my friend had to set the waffle (not very fluffy but very sweet) on a windowsill while he tackled the eggs, the sausage and the crisp bacon. Then he went to work on the cheese-covered hash browns, a biscuit smothered in cream gravy (bland) and a chewy patty of chicken-fried steak (with another thick helping of that gravy). The meal also included grits and gravy, but they mercifully never showed up.
At Anthony Sosa's new diner, the former Nichols Lunch space is miraculously clean, and the servers really know what they're doing. Among them is the quick-witted Bill Johnson, who has worked in almost every restaurant in town; all are quick to refill coffee cups, water glasses, soda tumblers — and, soon, cocktail glasses. For the first time in this old venue's history, it's getting a bar.
A stiff drink might come in handy if you're trying to take on the "meatloaf muffin." I had never heard of such a thing until I dined at Sosa's, and I hope never to see one again. Yes, it's a traditional ground-beef meatloaf, baked in a muffin tin and served in a soup cup. The one I sampled had an exterior so tough that I could have fired it from a cannon.
There's some exceptional food here, though: a creamy mac and cheese and a damn good chili. And I would order the fried chicken again. At Sosa's, you get a deep-fried bird that's moist and meaty under a crust with just the right amount of crunch.
Sosa's serves juicy, perfectly grilled burgers, a surprisingly authentic Reuben and a few well-executed Mexican dishes. The huevos rancheros can be ordered day and night (and should be — they're terrific), as can all of the breakfast dishes. The pancakes are airy and fluffy, and the biscuits can be had with gravy that features ample sausage bits. The cinnamon rolls are fresh and thickly iced.
Desserts here could use some work. The carrot cake looks house-made (and the waitress insisted it was, though most of the desserts here are outsourced), but my slice was as dry as the Sahara. (I'd be happy to see Sosa's offer Golden Boy pies, a staple of classic diners.)
The glory days of the all-night diner are long gone, and perfection isn't coming back to the form. Over the years, my memories of Nichols Lunch have taken on an unrealistic burnish that sometimes keeps me from admitting that the place was an absolute dump. But if the best diners are made for the imagination, then Sosa's has a good chance. It exudes the same lovable qualities that I found at Nichols, and the food is a hell of a lot better. And what of Huddle House? It's not lovable — not yet — but it's likable enough at 3 a.m. The crowd is a lot more interesting at that hour than it is during the Today show's time slot, and someone even remembered to bring out my grits.