I can think of a handful of defunct Kansas City restaurants that I wish had been spared extinction: the Prospect of Westport, Mrs. Peters Fried Chicken, the Lobster Pot, Bretton's. But it's the rare restaurateur who jumps in and keeps an iconic restaurant from closing, particularly in this economy.
That's why young Tony Olson (best known for operating a suburban saloon called Bullfrog's Bar & Grill) and his two business partners, Ben Wine and Bob Baker, deserve a pat on the back for keeping a popular Lee's Summit diner open. The trio took over a 10-year-old venue in downtown Lee's Summit, Neighbor's Café, after the original owners closed it in January.
Neighbor's Café was an unassuming family-style joint, like most of the other dining operations that have come and gone at 104 Southeast Third Street over the past half-century. It was almost a caricature of a small-town diner, something you might see in a rerun of The Andy Griffith Show or Alice. The food was — and remains — the kind of traditional American cooking we now call "home style," though hardly anyone I know still prepares liver and onions or chicken-fried steak at home anymore.
This location was beloved mainly because of its long history. The former Brown's Shoe Store was transformed into Brown's Steakhouse in 1951, kicking off a long run of comfort-food cafés: the Kozy Korner, the Chuck Wagon, Linda's Restaurant, Ida's Place, Ford's Family Restaurant, Thompson's Restaurant and (from 1995 to 2001) Sue's Kitchen. The latter restaurant's owner, Sue Meador, was famous for her cinnamon rolls and her generosity. She gave one of her rolls to every customer who sat down in the dining room.
When Don and Sheryl Roberts and Don's father, Phil Roberts, bought the restaurant in 2001, they kept the cinnamon-roll tradition as a kind of Lee's Summit lagniappe.
A decade later, under its new name — Neighborhood Café — this restaurant is still rolling out the rolls. Vicki Etheridge (no relation to Melissa, that singer from Leavenworth) still bakes trays and trays of the iced rolls every day, as she has for the past 14 years at this restaurant's previous incarnations. "We go through 1,500 rolls a day," she tells me.
The trays of rolls, covered with plastic wrap, are stacked on rolling shelves in a corridor adjacent to the kitchen. You have to pass the rolls on the way to the restrooms, and it's a terrific temptation to want to grab a couple on the return route. A friend of mine tried, and she can tell you that it's not a very good idea. Vicki Etheridge, who also bakes the fruit and cream pies for the Neighborhood Café, is a tough cookie.
Even the new logo for the restaurant is a cinnamon roll. I was eager to try them. As a veteran cinnamon-roll baker myself, I have to say that Etheridge's square, sugary yeast rolls are right on the money: not too sweet, not too puffy, just right eaten with a pat of butter (which I did with one I took home — the café serves little packets of butter substitute).
Olson and his partners have cleaned the place up, repainted the walls, and returned the yellowing newsprint front pages ("Kennedy Dead," "Nixon Resigns") to one wall, and put neatly framed photographs of local war veterans — we're talking World War II here — on another.
This is the kind of restaurant that has a bulletin board mounted near the front door with dozens of business cards and fliers pinned to it, including a selection of religious tracts that customers actually pick up and slip into a pocket or purse. (I took one, "Life Worth Living," myself. I was seduced by this line: "Gadgets, pleasures, and possessions eventually lose their attractiveness." So true, especially gadgets.)
The Neighborhood Café's kitchen staff returned to work after the new owners took over. That's why, one waitress told me, there's nothing new on the menu except a Reuben sandwich (very good, by the way). And the former 10-ounce Kansas City Strip has been replaced with a 12-ounce rib-eye.
Olson says he's using a better cut of beef now, but he's still charging $10.99 for a steak dinner that includes a potato, vegetable and hot roll or biscuit. At that price, I wish I could rave about the beef, but it's not the juiciest or most tender rib-eye I've ever tasted. On the other hand, it's more flavorful than anything you'll find at the Golden Corral.
The daily specials are handwritten in colored pen on a whiteboard near the kitchen doors (including that day's featured pies), and the offerings harken back to high-school-cafeteria favorites: Mexican sampler platters, all-you-can-eat tacos, and (on one afternoon I was there) bacon-cheeseburger soup. I ordered the soup like someone on a dare, but it was so thick and salty that I pushed it away. The waitress was scandalized: "Everyone loves that soup!" It might have worked if I'd spooned it over some biscuits.
The highlight of that lunch was dessert. I agonized over which of the pies I should select from a list of 15 that included blueberry, gooseberry, blackberry, pecan, peach, rhubarb, apple crisp, custard, coconut cream, chocolate cream, lemon meringue, peanut-butter cream and German-chocolate cream.
The coconut cream was excellent, with a light and flaky crust — made with vegetable shortening. The gooseberry pie — a hard-to-find pastry in this town — was deliciously tart and sweet. I can also recommend, from other visits, the juicy blueberry pie and a delectable chocolate-peanut-butter creation.
I even considered ordering a slab of pie for breakfast one morning, but the other options were more appealing. The french toast comes dipped in crushed Frosted Flakes. I'm a sucker for this dish when it's light and custardy inside and crunchy outside, even if this version is teeth-jarringly sweet. The flaky biscuits are doused in a thick cream gravy with a lot of sausage in it. (Other diners in this town seem to wave a smoky link over the gravy pot and call the flour-and-milk concoction sausage gravy. This is the real deal.)
There are 10 featured omelets on the menu, including a "kitchen sink" version that the waitress described to me this way: "Well, the cook throws a little of everything in it." Sorry, I'm not a gambler before noon. I ordered the croissant sandwich instead. My friend Bob had the country-fried steak breakfast platter, which delivered moderately tender meat under crunchy armor and enough cream gravy for three or four other platters. It came with fried potatoes and, of course, a cinnamon roll. He waddled out of the dining room, this time ignoring the selection of religious tracts. "Gluttony," I reminded him, "is a sin." Then I nearly dropped my carryout slice of lemon-meringue pie.
The fried chicken livers might have been really good if they hadn't been immersed in the deep fryer a shade too long. My friend Truman adored the thin, tender slices of beef liver, topped with a mound of grilled onions and sided with fluffy mashed potatoes that he insisted were house-made. They certainly tasted that way.
"Eat more," he insisted, pressing another spoonful on me, but I had a bunch of crispy fries on my own plate, heaped next to a limp slab of what the waitress said was grilled walleye. (It looked boiled.) What was I thinking to order fish in a diner? It's never fresh, no matter what anyone says.
All right, so maybe the "home style" cooking at the Neighborhood Café doesn't necessarily reflect the cooking in every home. But what this independently owned restaurant does well — pies and sandwiches, salads and breakfasts — it does really well. It's not for foodies or snobs but for those who love tradition: It's a home-baked slice of history.