Not a lot of restaurants in Kansas City are true survivors. The Savoy Grill, which celebrates its 108th birthday this year, is the only local fancy dining room to have lasted a century. The other old-timers on the list — the downtown locations of Town Topic, Hayes Hamburgers, Kitty's Café, Cascone's Grill — are mostly diners of a certain age (at least 50 years old).
Diners evolved from 19th-century lunch wagons, which were often dirty and disreputable. At the peak of their popularity, diners resembled the railroad dining cars that had come to be revered as the essence of American cleanliness and efficiency. That's why so many vintage diners and dinettes — including Hayes Hamburgers — were designed with plenty of shiny stainless steel and polished surfaces. In a small space, that reflective brightness registers as cleanliness. Besides cheap prices, convenient location and the familiarity of home-style dishes, that tidy unpretentiousness is one of the secrets to the urban diner's longevity.
Over the years, though, diners have ridden a decidedly not-so-unpretentious wave of nostalgia toward the upscale. Putting more sophisticated fare (and sometimes liquor) in a chrome-plated postcard of blue-plate dining isn't always a successful gambit. Case in point: the thoroughly unlikable Fran's Classic Diner in the Power & Light District. Now, after three different restaurant concepts (an ill-fated diner and two sushi joints) bombed in the pretentiously named Shops at Avignon, businessmen Doug Price and Scott Buescher and chef Pat Legler are gambling that a snazzier version of the Depression-era diner is the answer.
Of course, they're hedging the bet a bit — and bucking historic verisimilitude — by serving liquor. The place may be in the heart of Nazarene country, but suburbanites like some stiff sauce with their deep-fried shrimp — and I don't mean cocktail sauce. For the more sober set, there are milkshakes, malts, soda and iced tea (unsweetened as well as the teeth-jarringly sugary stuff Southerners prefer).
Given the forced intimacy of the pretty dining room's layout — it seats 97 people at close tables and in tight little booths that lack much in the way of partitioning — the alcohol may be a bad idea. During my first visit to the two-month-old diner, a mouthy acquaintance stopped by my table to gossip and deliver the inexplicable announcement that a certain local chef was "hung like a horse." The entire room went dead-quiet in embarrassment until my friend Bob leaned over and whispered, "And how would you know?" Another dining companion, Debbie, hid her face behind the single-sheet menu. "I usually adore that kind of vulgar gossip," she said later, "but not when a grandmother and a toddler are at the next table."
OK, so a diner — any diner — isn't the place to reveal a secret. Anyone who has ever eaten at Town Topic at 2 a.m., when the weepy and the intoxicated and the romantically thwarted are just a pass-the-salt away from one another, knows that. But there are other rules of etiquette that need to be followed at 119th Street Diner. Washing last night's special off the blackboard, for one thing. Debbie had her heart set on the shrimp scampi listed on the day-old board. The manager came over to apologize for the mistake, but an hour later, when we left, the dish was still written on the board.
During four visits, that was the only meal at which the service was clueless, and even then the food was good. That's really the selling point of this diner. What 119th Street Diner needs now is a staff of veteran hash-house waitresses, the kind who can juggle a full station in their sleep. But this is Johnson County, so the restaurant is, like so many others, staffed with pretty young people. Some are savvy, but others seem to be auditioning for a reality show that will never come.
Then again, maybe there is a camera hidden in the place. (That might explain the "horse" comment and its Candid Camera reaction.) With its Barbie pinks and lime greens and daffodil yellows, the dining room gives off a showy quality. And one of the first things I noticed was quiet: no clanking dishes tossed into bus tubs, no yelling at the kitchen crew.
"We're going for an upscale version of an old-fashioned diner," explains Legler, who insists on making almost everything — from mashed potatoes to the lard-free biscuits — from scratch, and who puts smoked salmon in his BLT. And almost everything I've tasted in this boldly colored joint is damn tasty. I splurged, sort of, on an inexpensive 6-ounce top sirloin, and it was tender and delicious and in good company with a fine baked potato and creamy mac and cheese (made with — vegetarians, take note — bits of baked ham).
The bone-in pork chop is one of the best deals on the menu: moist and flavorful and blanketed with a delectable dried-cherry reduction. A hunk of grilled salmon is also surprisingly fine, pink and moist inside a lightly crispy exterior, sided with deliciously al dente vegetables. The fried fish bursts from a feathery-light batter, and the fried shoestring potatoes with it are terrific.
The Reuben sandwich isn't a diner classic. It's no cheeseburger or patty melt (both of which are served here), and Legler says he sells more Philly cheesesteak sandwiches (made with Cheez Whiz, as in the City of Brotherly Love). But Legler's Reuben, with house-made Thousand Island and house-cured kraut, lives up to his bragging. It's definitely the best spin on this sandwich on the Kansas side of the metro.
The omelets (with that smoked salmon a popular add-on) aren't cheap, but they're memorably big (and, as at any good diner, available all day, along with the rest of the breakfast offerings). I can't say enough good things about the eggs Benedict here, but I've learned to stick with the real McCoy rather than go all adventurous with, say, the "Irish Benedict," made with mushy corned-beef hash and enough hash-browned potatoes to end a famine.
Most of the downtown diners serve Kansas-baked Golden Boy pies. The desserts at 119th Street Diner, which change frequently, are prepared by Russian-born Irina Yefremov, whose chocolate cream pie (baked in a flaky, buttery pastry) and banana cream pie (heavy on the bananas, very light on the custard) are extraordinary. They're not cheap, but the ganache-covered white-chocolate cheesecake takes the Cheesecake Factory to school.
So 119th Street Diner passes diner muster on the food and location fronts, even if its prices reflect Legler's ambition, and it's not even close to being a 24-hour operation. It's no threat to Town Topic, but there's reason to hope that it makes this part of the metro safe for diners for a good long time.