Opening a restaurant in a suburban antique mall sure sounds like a gamble to me. But it makes sense to serve the kind of food that complements the merchandise of vintage china and flatware, 1940s tablecloths and juice glasses, old cookbooks, carefully preserved copies of Life magazine, boxed Barbie dolls from the 1980s, vinyl record albums from the 1960s, and Beanie Babies from God only knows when.
The people who like to prowl through these malls (I'll confess that I do) are surrounded by nostalgic relics of less complicated, supposedly happier days: porcelain napkin holders, gaily decorated boxes for recipe cards, boxed board games, rickrack aprons and Wayne Newton's Greatest Hits. It's sensory overload after a while, especially when you realize how much of this merchandise — now deemed "collectibles" — you watched your mom toss out years ago. Or you tossed out yourself or sold off for a dime at a garage sale. I can't be the only one who looks at an empty Mrs. Butterworth syrup bottle or a juice-stained Raggedy Ann doll and thinks, This is now an antique?
It was so much sensory overload that I had to sit down to clear my head after a bit. Thank goodness Tina Myers has set up a little bistro — Tina Marie's — in the back of the Ridge Antique Mall in Shawnee, so I could have a glass of iced tea and reassure myself that it really was 2010 and not 1965. I mean, I had picked up a copy of an old Photoplay in one of the booths and got so caught up in reading one of the stories, "Richard Burton on Liz, Lies, Love!" that I momentarily forgot that Richard Burton has been dead for 26 years.
I won't say Tina Myers is serving antique food, but she is serving the kind of old-fashioned, home-style fare that's increasingly difficult to find on modern menus. If I had to describe Myers' menu, I'd say it's mostly made up of dishes that our mothers or grandmothers used to make at home — roast beef, pot roast, spaghetti and meatballs, baked chicken — in the days when apron-wearing moms and grannies cooked more often, pulling treasured recipes out of those pretty little recipe boxes. You know, after they put down the copy of Photoplay and turned off the latest Wayne Newton record on the hi-fi.
Myers is the former pie baker, manager and waitress at the old Leona Yarbrough's Family Restaurant, which closed last year after nearly a half-century of serving such dishes as roast beef, spaghetti and meatballs, and baked chicken. I dined in that restaurant shortly before it closed for good, and Tina was my waitress. Before I paid the bill, she handed me her business card and said she planned to open her own catering business or restaurant. I slipped the card into the back of my wallet, and it slipped right out of my mind because I didn't think of Myers again until the manager of BRGR, the hot new burger joint in Prairie Village, told me that a woman named Tina Myers was baking the pies for that restaurant. Excellent pies, I must say.
The home-baked pies were the calling cards of Leona Yarbrough's, as were those tiny, addictive, sugary-salty cinnamon rolls. Myers now makes them for her namesake restaurant, which she opened last February in a space that once was occupied by a Christian teen nightspot called Club Illusion. In the area where clean-cut teenagers used to shake their groove things to the sounds of Third Day and Petra, Tina Myers has carved out a tasteful dining room, with a hand-painted mural of a Tuscan landscape (although it could be Olathe, for all I know), a pergola, tile floors, and the wooden chairs from Leona Yarbrough's. There's still music, but it comes from an antique player piano that has been retrofitted to accept quarters, like an old jukebox.
On my first visit, I took my friends Carol Ann, Georgina and Bob to eat lunch with me at Tina Marie's. Georgina thought the restaurant was so far-out that it was divine, and Bob — a big fan of grandma-style cooking — was charmed by the eccentricity of eating in a space completely surrounded by the gewgaws and relics of pre-Clinton America. "It's weird but fun," he said.
He didn't care much for his chicken-salad sandwich, however. "It's mushy chicken salad," he griped. "I like chunky chicken salad." He blamed himself for not ordering more judiciously, like Georgina, who loved her pastrami Reuben even though the sandwich wasn't really a Reuben at all by the time she tortured the waitress with her demands ("no Thousand Island dressing, no cheese, just a spoonful of sauerkraut"). "That's why she likes it so much," Carol Ann whispered. "It's customized."
Carol Ann loved her lunch, a hunk of tilapia rolled in crushed tortilla chips and baked. "It's really very good," she said, "and really cheap!" For less than 10 bucks, her entrée included a choice of two side dishes, a tiny cinnamon roll, and a Parker House roll the size of a golf ball.
"This is just like Leona Yarbrough's in the 1950s," Georgina said, buttering a roll. "Fred and I used to eat dinner there. It cost $3.99 each."
Today, $9.99 is the new $3.99, but you still get a lot of bang for the buck. I had that day's special, a hot roast-beef sandwich on mashed potatoes, slathered with shiny brown gravy and sided with pickled beets and gelatin salad. I'm telling you, the food here is as vintage as a cabinetful of old Victrolas.
For dessert, we shared a slice of excellent lattice-crust apple pie and a chocolate sundae. "It was like going back in time," Georgina said as we left. "I feel 20 years younger."
I returned on a Sunday afternoon with Martha and Truman, who perked up when he heard that Myers serves fried chicken on Sundays as the daily special. "I'm from the South," Truman said. "And you only ate fried chicken on Sundays, unless you were hung over."
Myers makes some good bird, I'll tell you: moist and delicious under a light, crispy crust. "It's impeccably correct," Truman announced. The complete meal, including two side dishes, rolls and dessert cost $11.95.
Martha and I both had the other special of the day, a big dish of slow-cooked short ribs, the meat so succulent and tender that it melted in our mouths. "I love this place," Martha said. "Where else can you eat for 10 bucks and buy a pair of Monet earrings with fake rubies?"
We shared one of Myers' specialties — chocolate meringue pie — for dessert. It was extraordinary. Truman had some berry cobbler smothered in vanilla ice cream. "It's old school, baby," he said, licking his lips.
I bought a vintage cookbook on the way out, a survivor from some 1930s kitchen with recipes for many of the same homey dishes that Tina Myers serves. I liked looking through the recipes, but if I'm in the mood for that kind of food, I'd rather have Tina make it than cook it myself. I'm old-fashioned that way.