At Grinders, sculptor "Stretch" Rumaner makes art out of Cheez Whiz, among other things.

Whiz Kid 

At Grinders, sculptor "Stretch" Rumaner makes art out of Cheez Whiz, among other things.

Several years ago, I was standing in front of a very large canvas at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, listening to my friend Marvin -- who really knows quite a lot about art -- tell me why he thought the painting was fabulous. He used phrases such as "fluidity of style," "organic inspiration" and "dynamic swirls of Earth-based energy." It was all bullshit, but I'm always willing to go along with a performer when he's on a roll. As Marvin's impassioned praise crescendoed, a skinny young Kansas City Art Institute student walked up beside us, nodded toward the canvas and said, "Looks like someone took a big crap on it."

Marvin practically deflated in front of me, but I thought the kid had captured the painting's "organic inspiration," as it were, quite succinctly. Beauty is always in the eye of the beholder, of course. There are still people who don't like the works of Picasso or Warhol. And there are, even more inexplicably, people who love the "art" created by mass-merchandising maestro Thomas "Painter of Light" Kinkade.

Art is one thing; restaurants are another. Or are they? In recent weeks I've taken two different art collectors to Grinders, the 18th Street storefront space that was an art gallery a couple of years ago and has been reborn as a funky pizza and sandwich joint. But it has artistic pretensions, too (complete with a rotating selection of paintings and mixed-media stuff), because it's owned by the physically diminutive but larger-than-life sculptor Jeff "Stretch" Rumaner.

The place is seriously unglamorous, which is part of its strange appeal. One artist friend of mine describes Grinders as "a cross between an artist's studio and a dive bar." Throw in a black-plastic basket full of tater tots and a plateful of chicken wings and you've got a pretty good picture of the place.

On the Friday night I took Bob and Patrick, who once owned a contemporary-art gallery, Patrick was entranced by the boisterousness, the food, the customers and the informal serving style. A few days later, I took my friend Ned, a patron of the local art scene, to Grinders for lunch. He hated the place. Passionately. "It's grungy. It's creepy. There's no pretense to it, but you can take that a little too far." He did like his pizza, though, and begrudgingly admitted that Rumaner's charisma was too forceful not to like. "He's the coolest maitre d' in the city," Ned said. "I guess people come here to hang out with him."

Well, it is a hangout of sorts, attracting a lot of the local bohemian types, who casually drape themselves at the counter, sipping cocktails and smoking cigarettes, just like their Parisian counterparts at Café de Flore a century ago. And if Rumaner is the coolest maitre d' in the city, Grinders also has the best-looking manager in the city -- the dark, handsome Marty Frannea (who attended the Kansas City Art Institute with Rumaner in the 1980s, before going off to culinary school). Their staff consists of lanky, tattooed kids who have excessive enthusiasm for their jobs but only the most rudimentary serving skills.

"This reminds me of Max's Kansas City," said Patrick, who lived in New York City in the 1970s when that famous watering hole (and art-crowd magnet) was in its heyday. He mentioned that to Stretch, who stopped by our table just as the server brought out Bob's house salad (served in a clear plastic take-out box instead of a bowl). "That's why I wanted to call this place Max's Kansas City, Kansas City!" Stretch shouted. "I even contacted Mickey Ruskin's widow to see if I could get rights to the name."

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