I'm wearing black, a show of mourning for the three Kansas City restaurants scheduled to close forever December 1: Skies, the Peppercorn Duck Club and Benton's Steakhouse. It's always bittersweet when a restaurant that used to be a favorite ends a long and glorious run.
I actually shed a tear or two when Stephenson's Old Apple Farm Restaurant closed in 2007. I mean, it wasn't the kind of restaurant that was ever going to win a Michelin star, but the menu of old-fashioned comfort food had an evergreen appeal, and the theme dining rooms were masterpieces of all-American kitsch. All right, the food and the décor had grown tired by the end — the last time I dined there, I walked out feeling like I had just visited a dying relative in a nursing home. Stephenson's was already on life support.
Some old restaurants, like old soldiers, just fade away. But others go on and on like the Energizer Bunny. Some of these are beloved — even revered — for all the right reasons. Yet for every such place that has labored to generate a constant stream of regulars, there's at least one old joint that sticks around almost in spite of itself, making no move toward innovation or renewal (or, sometimes, good food) while inexplicably packing 'em in. How? For crying out loud, why?
Well, it's complicated. Some restaurants remain popular because of nostalgia. People grew up eating in some mediocre dining room, had their first date at a certain drive-in. They might not return often to the restaurant in question — if they go back at all — but they need it to be around, an affirmation of their own continued existence.
It's more than wistfulness for the bygone that keeps a handful of local restaurants in business, though. The more I thought about it, the more I understood that a few places enjoy a kind of cult following. In a couple of cases, it's charming and understandable. In a couple of others, it's baffling and borderline terrifying. I'm talking unremarkable food, eye-searing décor, maybe a line cook who looks remarkably like someone you just saw on America's Most Wanted.
These are modest establishments. The dining rooms are small, the overhead isn't steep, and there's no pretense. Maybe you love them because the foodies of the world don't. The salads will never know the flavor of an heirloom tomato. The crème brûlée has never graced the dessert list. Local epicure Bonjwing Lee isn't at the next table, taking iPhone pics of his dinner. Anthony Bourdain isn't coming. Even Guy Fieri isn't coming. And they've now outlasted award-winning Skies, Benton's and the Peppercorn Duck Club.
To what unambitious survivors do I refer? Let's start with Tony's Villa Capri restaurant, a place that some of my friends adore so much, they won't hear a word against it. I know a few who shudder at the mention of the place, but you won't ever hear me bad-mouth a restaurant that still has a black light and a glow-in-the-dark mural. Tony Scudiero, who has operated the Overland Park restaurant for a half century, opened this version of the Villa Capri in 1961, when 81st Street and Metcalf was at the southern edge of the suburbs.
"When I was a teenager," my friend Deb says, "this place was packed all the time. All the Johnson County kids came here because it was one of the only places on Metcalf where you could get pizza. And it looks just the same."
There's no shortage of pizza options on Metcalf now. Outside Villa Capri, development has rarely ceased. Inside, though, the clock has happily stopped. Want to know what an Italian restaurant looked like during the Kennedy administration? Here you go: checked vinyl tablecloths, paper napkins, Frank Sinatra's voice emanating from a speaker. And if the chairman of the board himself wandered in, he'd have his choice of the usual three salad dressings: Italian, ranch and blue cheese (all still made in-house). What is this thing you call balsamic vinaigrette?
The Villa Capri is not merely a survivor. It's the anti-Lidia's, the Trezo Vino for the 99 percent. Those fancy Italian upstarts serve a basket of artisan breads; Scudiero serves breadsticks made from pizza dough (delicious). No dinner here costs more than $11, and most of them include salad and bread.
The food here, even by working-class Southern Italian standards, isn't glorious. (It tastes like my Aunt Jenny made it, which is truly damning it with faint praise.) And I'll never order the gloppy baked mostaccioli again. But if you want the best Italian steak sandwich in town or a first-rate bowl of simple, unadorned spaghetti and meatballs, Scudiero still has some secrets worth keeping.
Another place left over from a simpler time and resting on its laurels as a high school hangout is the oddly named In-a-Tub. For years, whenever driving by its location near the airport, I wondered just what kind of "tub" the food was served in. It was time to find out.
"The name," says David Hayden, blogger and lifetime Tub devotee (he claims to have eaten his first solid food in the original location), "comes from its original signature dish, soft-serve ice cream. All the teens from the Northland high schools came here after the football and basketball games."
Today, that soft-serve ice cream comes only in the milkshakes offered at the two remaining In-a-Tub restaurants. These shakes are divine and come in some less-traditional flavors, such as butter-pecan and raspberry. (The butterscotch is milkshake nirvana.) But the signature In-a-Tub dish now is a greasy taco, sprinkled with that neon-orange powdered cheese used in boxed macaroni mixes. Sound hideous? It's popular here — very popular. There's also a version with non-powdered dairy, the "beef-and-cheez." The woman at the counter assured me last week that it should satisfy purists. "It has a slice of American cheese at the bottom," she said. "It's real good."
That pledge turned out to be something of a white lie. And I didn't like the stiff, prefab fried burrito or the hot dogs here, either. Northland natives are supposedly mad for In-a-Tub, but after three visits, its charm was lost on me. I developed a grudging affection for the loose-meat "pocket burgers," which come on ordinary buns and are served tucked inside little envelope-like paper bags, but Mugs Up does these better. On the other hand, I know of no other place that promises pizza burgers, taco burgers, "chubby" corn dogs, and chili dogs that do, in fact, come in a tub. Also filling up tubs: fried chicken fingers and a cornucopia of deep-fried vegetables.
The North Oak Trafficway location, which opened in 1986, looks like a suburban recreation room, with its tawny wood paneling and greenhouse-style smoked-glass windows. "I come here because it's so darn cheap," said a woman standing next to me at the counter. "Where else can you get a good meal for less than four dollars?"
Don't ask me, lady. I'm still looking.
I do know where to find another zombie following for less-than-stellar tacos and burritos, though: across the state line in the hamlet of Mission at Don Chilito's. Like In-a-Tub, it once had several area locations and used to serve as a teen hangout. (Shawnee Mission North High School is a few blocks away.) But this 40-year-old restaurant is a lot bigger and busier than In-a-Tub, and it has its own eccentricities.
Customers call out their orders while pushing a plastic tray down a cafeteria line, then experience the thrill of watching somber cooks assemble the tacos, burritos and other indelicacies on a plate. The plate is then shoved into one of the four commercial-grade microwave ovens behind the line. Don't groan: This is how a lot of local Tex-Mex cantinas operate. Don Chilito's simply puts it all out in the open.
The menu essentially hasn't changed since the 1970s, though the prices have failed to stay the same. The Fiesta dinner, $4.95 in 1979, costs a stout $10.59 today. Customers still use metal tongs to snatch up their own corn tortilla chips — or sugary sopapillas — from the "chip bar," with its selection of indistinct salsas. The dining room is a maze. "Just keep walking," a friend instructed as I balanced my tray and looked for a place to attempt ingestion. "You'll wind up somewhere."
Don Chilito's has remained a neighborhood staple for years, and people seem to love or hate the place, leaving no middle ground. My friend Bob, who grew up eating here, adores the place and believes the Tex-Mex creations are delicious. Another friend says dining here is appealing only if he's stoned. "The Juarez Plate is especially delicious in an altered state," he insists.
Me? I find the booths uncomfortable, the noise level unbearable and the food unmemorable. On my last visit to the restaurant, I bought three boxes of Girl Scout cookies from owner Barry Cowden's granddaughter. They were the highlight of the meal.
I don't know any restaurant in town that has more passionate — and stubborn — customers than Sharp's, the gay-friendly, family-friendly home-style diner in Brookside. Owner Marty Junkins has hired at least two chefs over the past couple of years and charged them with updating the menu. Both times, regulars staged a revolt and succeeded in having the exiled dishes restored within days (and those upstart cooks are long gone). I'm on the record as one who detests the dish that seems to be the fulcrum of these little revolutions, a water-chestnut soup that's tasteless and grainy. It exerts a rapturous hold over people I otherwise trust, as does the space itself.
"It's like Cheers," my friend Troy says. "Everyone knows your name!"
Yes, Sharp's is a friendly place. But what good does remembering my name do if the servers don't get my order right? In my experience, this was the case more often than not, though the service has improved greatly over the past year. The food? No. The breakfast offerings and sandwiches have never left me swooning, and I have yet to find a dish on the dinner menu that I even want to order.
But I'm clearly in the minority. My midtown neighbors find the place to be warm, comfortable and cheery. (It's reportedly getting a stylish makeover; I'll believe it when I see it.) "You have to be a hateful old queen not to love Sharp's!" snapped an acquaintance when I complained that I just didn't find the place all that lovable. Hand me my crown.
I'm told that disliking YJ's Snack Bar, the excruciatingly hip dive in the Crossroads District, shows similar bad form. It's not fair to judge the place as a restaurant — it's meant to be a hangout — but I don't hang out when I want to eat. I don't have the patience. Yes, I've met a few interesting people here, but the eclectic space is small enough to induce claustrophobia. I can't get to know the latest cool artistic type if I'm sitting on her lap, looking for the emergency exit.
My lack of enthusiasm for the snack shack dates to the moment I heard an especially pretentious and self-important Crossroads habitué claim to hold court here. "There's no place like it in Kansas City," she said, with theatrical fervor. "It's Paris in the 1920s! It's Gertrude Stein, Erik Satie!" At the time, I found it way closer to some B-movie version of a 1950s "beatnik" club in the Village: bongos, berets and beards.
For better and worse, YJ's today can't really be defined in any conventional way. It's cozy and crowded with stuff (including a piano that takes up a quarter of the dining room), and it really is a fabulous place for people watching (better in warm weather, when you can do your gazing outside). Some important names, in local art circles anyway, really do hang out here, and I can understand the allure of coffee sipping and gossiping. For dining? Not so much.
YJ's has an extremely limited menu. The daily special, no matter what it is, is strongly encouraged by the staff. The one I tasted one recent day was extraordinary in concept: a Middle Eastern lunch plate with a mound of delicious couscous studded with ruby pomegranate seeds and golden raisins, a spoonful of a fiery pepper hummus, a tiny salad dotted with feta cheese and chopped cucumber. So far, so good. But there was a lump of dry white rice and, perched atop it, a knot-shaped hunk of lamb that was so dry, fatty and chewy, I was able to try a bite only with some effort. Just one bite, though.
There was a chicken version, too, with pieces of bird so dry and stringy, they might have been scraped from a plate served to Satie in the 1920s.
The dining room is cleaner than it looks through the grungy windows, but the place means to be disheveled, with stacks of magazines, beads, paintings and plastic grapes scattered here and there. It's a kid's clubhouse, powered by a different brand of nostalgia than the other spots. And, more than any other place mentioned here, it courts its cult status.
I'm not the sort of unconventional customer that YJ's wants, but I now have a grudging respect for its popularity. It's fiercely iconoclastic, from the décor to its imaginative specials. There's nothing else like it in Kansas City (or in Paris).
None of these five restaurants really knock me out, but I'm in awe of the devotion that some diners have for them — it's a kind of borderline-religious zeal that you shouldn't question too much. I once asked a friend of mine, who had fallen in love with a man who had no obviously redeeming qualities, why him? "Because no one else can see what I see," she said.
It's the same for those chili dogs, burgers and tacos, that soup, and the habits that perpetuate them: a divine madness.