Dining » Fat Mouth

Kitchen Redo

Sometimes any old room's the dining room.

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Space, the final frontier: Lawrence's Teller's (see review, page 47), isn't the only restaurant in these parts to have set up tables and chairs in a former bank building, although it's one of the most visually impressive. The Double Dragon Chinese Restaurant (5031 Main Street) -- best known for its buffet -- is located in an unassuming brick building that once housed a Plaza neighborhood bank. And the city's tiniest Cajun restaurant, Hot Tamale Brown's (10 W. 39th Street), serves frosty mint lemonade, spicy tamales, and shrimp cornbread from a triangle-shaped building that was once a drive-through bank. Tellers used to cash checks in what's now the pocket-size kitchen.

The formal EBT (1310 Carondelet Drive) was actually built inside the atrium of a newer -- circa 1978 -- suburban branch of United Missouri Bank. The building is postmodern dullsville, but the restaurant boasts wonderful architectural details from the long-razed downtown Emery Bird Thayer department store: The art nouveau elevator cages now are tiny dining rooms. Department stores may go out of fashion, but the tasteful buildings that housed them still have cachet: The Cheesecake Factory (4701 Wyandotte) was carved out of a portion of what used to be Swanson's, the city's fanciest carriage-trade shop, and, a few blocks away, the Canyon Cafe (4626 Broadway) did the same thing, creating a sweeping space out of one-third of the brick structure built, in the 1940s, as the Plaza's Emery Bird Thayer store.

The spacious brick building that houses the city's beloved soul food restaurant, Three Friends Bar-B-Q (2461 Prospect), has few vestiges of its past as Cronkite's Dry Goods Store, and upstairs, where the steaming buffet tables are pushed against one wall, old fireplace mantles remind diners that these once were cozy inner-city apartments.

Because building a restaurant from the ground up is an expensive proposition, restaurateurs have often had to be creative in finding just the right existing space for a kitchen and dining room. Some ideas work better than others.

Case in point: The Mediterranean-style former funeral home and mortuary at 41st and Baltimore never caught on in its brief turn as Villa Fontana, a fancy Italian restaurant (although it is still frequently rented as a catering hall and meeting space). KCUR 89.3's Walt Bodine still shudders at the idea of eating in a building where corpses once were embalmed.

When it comes to building makeovers, sometimes less is more. The Trolley Inn (11400 E. Truman Road, Independence) still looks like the old trolley car it was, since little was done to "renovate" the unique space. The City Diner (301 Grand) and Joe D's Wine Bar & Cafe (6227 Brookside Plaza) were gas stations in their previous lives.

One of the metro's most interesting building makeovers is the Power Plant Restaurant and Brewery (2 Main Street, Parkville), in the former Park College Power Plant, which first cranked up in 1918; the building still contains one of the massive steel Kewanee Firebox boilers, with beer spigots bursting out of its side. At the Power Plant, diners can eat a turkey burger or a prime rib sandwich at a tidy, comfortable table in a room that once was piled with dusty coal and roaring with the sound of those furnaces. When the afternoon trains rush by, shaking the brick building to its foundation, they remind diners what the room's more utilitarian past might have been like: hot, dirty, and noisy. Just like most restaurant kitchens -- from any era -- on a busy Saturday night.

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