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."

Alas, those negotiations proved too complicated. And opening the pizza place involved plenty of other hurdles, such as creating light fixtures out of steel ductwork and old helmets, arguing with soft-drink vendors and ripping up a big chunk of the 112-year-old building's wooden floor in order to lower an 1,800-pound dough mixer into the basement.

That industrial-strength mixer churns out some excellent dough, though. I've eaten at Grinders four times, and my favorite things on the tiny menu (an 8-inch-by-5-inch card, really) are the chewy, delicious specialty pizzas, particularly the inexpensive small ones -- such as the Hippie, with green peppers, black olives, spinach, tomatoes, artichoke hearts and almonds -- which are great appetizers for a trio of friends.

One of the six pies is a culinary homage to the late pizza maven Larry "Fats" Goldberg, though I quickly discovered it's one of the less-requested numbers. The recipe boasts pesto, smoked salmon, capers and cream cheese. The only time I ordered it, there wasn't any salmon in the house, so they made it for me with crabmeat. That substitution idea wasn't bad, but the pizza turned out to be a gloppy, tasteless mess.

If you're going to go artsy-fartsy in the pizza department, a better option is the Bengal Tiger, which throws together pesto, tandoori chicken (baked in the Grinders pizza oven), crabmeat, cilantro and hearts of palm. I confess, I've eaten two, and I'm crazy for it. I also pigged out on the Hog, which is so crammed with bacon, Canadian bacon, ham and meatballs that it practically squeals when you bite into a slice.

Stretch dubbed his restaurant Grinders because it was an umbrella term that represented "art, sculpture, skateboarding, fucking and, of course, the sandwich." Strangely, though, the namesake dish was the one I liked the least. My copy of The Food Lover's Companion defines grinder as a huge sandwich. Stretch's version is hefty enough, and it's laden with the traditional meatballs, melted cheese and tomato sauce. But the meatballs were obviously the prepackaged variety, and that had me grinding my teeth. Bogus balls never taste as meaty or flavorful as the real thing.

"Tastes like the Costco version," Bob said, wrinkling his nose. That was the night we ate with Patrick, who gulped down two martinis and started babbling on about all the famous New York artists he'd had sex with, back when he was young and thin. Stretch, who had stopped by the table in time to hear that monologue, seemed impressed. But I was far more interested in the South Philly Cheesesteak, an honest-to-God crusty Italian roll piled with lots of shaved beef and grilled onions but only a hint of melted provolone and Cheez Whiz. What the hell?

"We mix the cheese in with the meat when we cook it," explained the Philly-born Stretch, noticing my scowl. I sent the sandwich back for more of that neon-orange Whiz, which some prissy patrons find too vulgar for words. But it's what they serve at the high temple of cheesesteaks, Pat's King of Steaks on Philadelphia's East Passyunk Avenue. I prefer my culinary art to be the real thing, not a reproduction.

Plastic ashtrays on every table are among Grinders' delightfully politically incorrect touches. (Stretch originally put out some fancy ones he got in Paris, but patrons ripped them off right away.) Similarly, servers look like they just rolled out of bed, food comes on paper plates, and mounted on the wall by the cash register is the official Grinders thong, available in black with the words "Show Me Pie" silk-screened on the front.

"We've already sold a half-dozen of them," Stretch said.

A fashion statement for the bump-and-Grinders set.

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