Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Restaurants with a Past – The Back Story

Behind the kitchen, beneath the dining room, before the present

You sit down, perhaps at a white-garbed table, perhaps not.  Maybe the walls are old bricks, maybe they’re sheathed in drywall.   You enjoy the ambiance, whatever it is, and perhaps even remark on some of the accoutrements – the flowers on the table, say, an unusual picture, perhaps even the bar and its lighting.
Sitting there, you’re probably unlikely to ponder the history of your location.  But, as you await your drink, take a moment to think about where you are eating.  You may be surprised to learn some of the history behind a few of our eateries.   

Dining at Union Station
Let’s start with one you may know about, Pierpont’s in Union Station.  You probably have admired their bar and the elegant dining room, but what you may not know  is that the restaurant’s three story structure originally housed the women’s smoking room (gasp!) and the women and children’s waiting room.  (That was one large room; unfortunately, there was no place for the women to get away from the children.)   In the lowest level that currently houses the wine cellar, you can still see the original windows, low to the floor, and brass towel drying bars, also original to the site, which still adorn several of the private dining rooms.  These windows enabled the children to watch the trains pass, offering needed diversion.   
Amazing transformation – from ticket booth to Harvey’s first floor.


Still at Union Station, Harvey’s is based on a very old tradition – the original Harvey House chain of restaurants which began in the 1870s supplying the Santa Fe Railroad’s main line through the southwest.  Today, Harvey’s (fortunately) eschews the “Harvey Girls” and elaborate meals which revolutionized rail travel.  It now sits where the ticket booths were, with an addition of a second floor from which you can overlook the bustle of the transformed train station.  We highly recommend you take a look on your way to or from “Harvey’s upstairs to see the collection of photos and artifacts collected for the 100 Year Anniversary.

To the north of the station squats the historic Freight House, built in 1887 and now the name for an entire district. Then it was just one big building whose purpose was, no surprise, to hold unloaded freight from the rail cars until merchants carted it away to nearby warehouses.  The 500 foot long building fell into disrepair over the years, despite Kansas City being the second largest railroad freighter in the country, but it was saved by investors in the 90s who envisioned restaurants there from the first.  Lidia’s opened there in 1998; Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbequeopened two years later, and Grünauer replaced another restaurant there in 2010.
Built even earlier than Union Station, now downtown but then not so much, a gorgeous brick public school with a bell tower was completed in 1886.  Webster School was built with a revolutionary concept: that children learned better in large rooms with light, color, and ventilation.  Thus, 14 foot ceilings, colored block windows, and large transoms (crosspiece over a door with a window above it) were incorporated into its design.  This old public school building served thousands of children until 1932 when it closed, victim to commercialization of the area surrounding it.  The building was then used as a TWA training school, a radio trade school, an art gallery, the Kansas City Social Services Building, and a residence.

Today, of course, you know this building at 16th and Wyandotte as Webster House, just a skip from the Kauffmann Center for the Performing Arts. You walk upstairs to the dining room, bar, and private rooms where Chef Matt Arnold and his staff create very modern takes on traditional dishes.  If you really practice your visualization skills, you can see the bones of the school and imagine the kids in the classrooms, due to Shirley Helzberg’s meticulous restoration and recreation. 

We’re still talking about the 1800s: Margarita’s was a bordello for itinerant travelers as the wagon trains headed west, first coming down the hill from Westport to what became Southwest Boulevard.  Not the picture you had about our wagon train pioneers, right?  This space became, eventually, a tortilla factory after it failed as an earlier restaurant, St. Jude’s Mexican restaurant that didn’t sell alcohol, which was a bit of a problem apparently.
But past incarnations do seem to have an after-life.  The owners today swear the place is ghost-ful – a chef has been “seen” cooking after midnight when no one was there, bathroom doors open and close, shadows walk across the dining room, lights flicker on and off.  And just so you know – none of their delicious margaritas are involved in these sightings.

Despite its storefront appearance, the Westside Local at 16th and Summit also began life in the 1880s, but as a residence.  A small park, movie house, maybe a gas station later were across the street, and by the 1950s, the area was all retail and the space was probably a pharmacy.  From there, a greater transition: it became Lefty’s Tavern in the 1970s, with a small apartment above the not so reputable bar.  Then it became the Summit Café in the 90s, then Porge and Brina’s Mexican restaurant, and then, most recently, in July of 2009, it opened as Westside Local Bar and Restaurant, specializing in fresh and local before that became such a fad.
Somewhat out of town but still in the 19th century, we can’t forget about 88 at TheElms, at the Elms Hotel and Spa in Excelsior Springs.  (There’s also The Tavern there and Café at the Elms.)  The hotel’s past is a remarkable story, dating to when the medicinal qualities of the healing waters of Excelsior Springs began to attract serious attention, first because of the miraculous recovery of a child from tuberculosis in the aforementioned 80s.  The roster of guests at the hotel span from Al Capone to President Harry Truman and the New York Giants.   Although the structure has changed hands several times, some friendly and accommodating ghosts (and staff) still ensure an excellent meal, party, or wedding in this historical environment.  You can read the complete story at http://www.elmshotelandspa.com/the-elms-history.htm.

Once at street level, now below.
About 30 miles south of the Springs and just east of Kansas City, there is another very historical and multiple restaurant site: Independence Square.  Everyone knows that Independence was the jumping off place for the west, as the Santa Fe, California, and Oregon Trails tracked off into the wilds from there and that Harry Truman’s first job at age 13 was at Clinton’s drug store (then Crown Drug) which still serves sodas. 
Both Frank James (Jesse’s brother) and William Quantrill were incarcerated on the Square, but now more appealing are the old buildings that have been transformed into charming restaurants.  CaféVerona was an office for the Jones Store.  The Courthouse Exchange, whose tagline is “serving fine burgers and beer since 1889,” is now relocated below street level on Lexington Avenue after several stops on the historic square.  And Ophelia’s Restaurant & Inn was a Katz Drug Store, probably dating from the late 40s or early 50s. All so different now!
The bar at Café de Venice - where a shot can be deadly

A more recent time-line comes from Barbara Rafael of Le FouFrog at 400 East 5th, which she and chef husband, Mano, own.  Built in the 40s, its first incarnation was as Café de Venice.  Owned by a couple who lived across the street, there was a little street urchin who they let sleep in the basement until they finally adopted him. But the rumor is that she was one tough lady, once shooting a patron dead at the bar.  Hmmm.  Gaetano’s opened there by the 1950s, reputedly named after alleged local crime mobster, Gaetano Lococo.  But it was also the hang-out for many judges, lawyers, and others who worked downtown.  Due to its popularity, it even survived the explosive demise of the River Quay in the 70s.  A bit later, it became the Red Front where it was known for great Italian sandwiches, homemade sausage, and sugo (usually a tomato sauce) – plus packaged liquor-to- go which made it very popular in Blue Law times on Sundays.

When the Rafaels leased and remodeled the space in 1996, they unearthed wood floors under three layers of linoleum. They pulled off faux wood paneling and discovered brick walls and they made two curio cabinets out of the windows that the Red Front had bricked over.  Of course, they did much more to create their charming space.  Since the area was founded by the French from Marseille, the couple feels that they’ve come full circle with their French bistro. 

And last but certainly not least, we come all the way up to the 1970s: The American Restaurant, constructed to be the jewel atop Crown Center, one of the first mixed use complexes in the country.  The area had been Hallmark’s home base since 1922 but J.C. and son Donald J. Hall realized in the 50s that the area surrounding their Hallmark headquarters was deteriorating and urban blight was escalating. 

Part of their grand scheme for their complex was a world-class restaurant and perhaps even more importantly, one that served American, rather than European, fare.  James Beard (yes, of awards fame) and Joe Baum, a legendary New York restaurateur, consulted.  The architect who designed Windows on the World in NYC and Water Tower Place in Chicago created the timeless design.  The American Restaurant’s design and even more often, its cuisine have been winning awards ever since.

There’s more to eating out than choosing a place and some items from a menu.  In Kansas City, that location, that table, that meal, can also take you backwards for a short time- trip to the past.  It’s a worthwhile and thought-provoking journey.


If you have pictures, please send them to us at info@kcrestaurantguide.com ! Here are a few more


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