Way back in the 1970s, I went to college with a toothy, dimpled guy who dressed with great flamboyance and spent hours blow-drying his wavy hair but vehemently denied he was gay. (He was a member of the Young Republicans, so I guess he had his reasons.) He claimed to have a girlfriend in some far-off state. “I’m not a homosexual just because I can put a creative look together and like the opera, am I?” he asked.
“Yes!” my friends and I guffawed. The word “outing” didn’t exist, but we still spent a lot of time cooking up ways to let this twisted sister’s coterie of straight conservative pals see what was obvious to our group of Anita Bryant-hating, Cher-loving disco boys: The Big Man on Campus was a Queen.
Finally a rumor raced around the school that the dimpled Young Republican had been arrested for doing God only knows what in a public park. To this day I’m not sure if the gossip was true. But instead of slinking back to his small town and that mythical girlfriend, he returned from the hoosegow a politically reborn gay activist, complete with brush mustache and a tank top silk screened with a pink triangle. He cut off his wavy hair, became a Democrat and spent the next two years somberly passing out gay-rights fliers.
“He was much more fun when he was in the closet,” sighed my friend Scott. “And he dressed better too. He’s not gay, I’m telling you. He’s just a glum homosexual.”
And that’s my biggest complaint with Sharp’s, the Brookside diner that’s not a gay restaurant. In fact, Kansas City has no exclusively gay restaurant (ideally, every restaurant in town should be friendly to all its patrons — gay, straight, whatever). But Sharp’s is a nongay joint that many heterosexual diners perceive to be gay. If there’s a common view of Sharp’s, it’s the one voiced by Lesbian and Gay Community Center director Jamie Rich: “It’s a neighborhood diner that welcomes the gay community.”
“If you’re located in Brookside,” says owner Trasi Sharp, “you have to be gay-friendly. But we’re by no means a gay restaurant. Sixty to seventy percent of our clientele is straight.”
Except on Saturday and Sunday mornings, that is, when the dining room is a who’s who of gay theater, interior design, literature, music and fashion and the musical accompaniment is appropriate: My hot, steamy pancakes arrived just as the sound system squealed with the late disco diva Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real).”
It’s a signal of some sort that the most popular shift at Sharp’s — the breakfast hours — also attracts the most culturally diverse audience. Mainstream diners may flock in for the lackluster lunches and dismal dinners, but the morning crowd makes for a livelier scene thanks to excellent (and reasonably priced) offerings of egg dishes with crispy fried potatoes and a creamy sausage gravy lovingly ladled over flaky biscuits.
To remind the tongue-in-cheek crowd that this scene is no ordinary hash house, there’s a well-endowed sausage omelet called “The Italian Stallion” as well as a health-conscious one that “Does a Body Good.” Both justify standing around and waiting for a table on a weekend morning. And some customers don’t even have to stand around; like my (straight) friend Linda, they work the room, greeting all their old friends: “I see everyone I know at Sharp’s,” Linda says. “Who cares about the food?”
I care enough to agree with my actor friend David, who goes to Sharp’s only in the mornings. He adores the biscuits and gravy and loves running into friends and acquaintances but thinks the place needs a makeover. “It’s gotten a little shabby,” he whispered one morning.
“Shabby’s not quite the word,” countered my old hippie friend Debbie. She surveyed the dining room between bites of her Brookside Benedict, made with spinach instead of ham for Sharp’s vegetarian contingent. “It’s void of any style. It’s just boring.”
True enough. But I can ignore those tired framed posters of dead Hollywood icons (James Dean cavorting in cinema purgatory with Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart and Judy Garland), or the mirrored back wall that needs a good spray of Windex. What I find so annoying is how, after the breakfast crowd clears out, the suddenly overpriced food becomes as bland as a Johnson County precinct committee meeting. Maybe if Sharp’s were more overtly gay, the décor might be more attractive and the food would be better throughout the day. But as it is, the place tries too hard to be all things to all people.
At one meal, I tried desperately to work up enthusiasm for what the menu called “nearly famous” artichoke dip, which was concocted of not nearly enough chopped artichokes (a staple of a half dozen Sharp’s dishes) and way too much cream cheese. Edible? Yes. Famous? Never. The restaurant’s signature soup — cream of water chestnut — has achieved a certain level of celebrity, mostly based on the story that Sharp and her chef accidentally made the first batch of soup with water chestnuts instead of the required roasted chestnuts and decided they preferred their new version. And the mildly seasoned soup, flavored with carrot, celery and onion along with the slightly sweet water chestnuts, does have a soothing quality.
I have friends who think I’m too bitchy for whining about Sharp’s dull dinners, but even my butchest dining companions found themselves arching eyebrows over mediocre suppers too often accompanied by a “medley” — a once-happy word that has become a culinary pejorative — of soggy, overcooked carrots, cauliflower, broccoli and red peppers. Or even worse: a glob of sticky, heavily spiced rice that has more in common with rice pudding than a side dish. I ended up going cholesterol-mad and choosing French fries as the vegetable du jour with every meal, from chewy grilled barbecued pork chops that had the consistency of a cardboard yard sign to sautéed peanut chicken strips that were worthless without the accompanying teriyaki sauce.
Sharp’s has never pretended to serve gourmet fare. Trasi Sharp calls her restaurant’s offerings “comfort food,” and the simplest choices — hamburgers, salads, a charbroiled steak — come off better than the more “creative” alternatives. But not always. I tried chewing through Sharp’s variation on a pork tenderloin, finally giving up when I realized that the meat under the gristly breading was as tender as Ben-Hur’s sandals. When the kitchen gets artful, the food is even less successful: a grilled chicken breast smothered in a salty artichoke cream sauce or pair of greasy fried crab cakes served over a “dollop of lobster cream sauce” that was free of any recognizable taste, lobster or otherwise.
My friend Bob’s petite fried chicken breast arrived forlornly on a plate with two uninspired dipping sauces and a gummy, overdressed coleslaw. “I could get better chicken at Go Chicken Go,” he fumed. “And cheaper.”
I reminded him that Sharp’s dinner, like my plate of crab cakes, includes a cup of soup or a salad (the Caesar is so drenched with dressing it could almost pass as a soup) and those dreadful steamed vegetables, but my argument fell on deaf ears. Bob had never been a Sharp’s devotee, and his patience was ebbing, especially after my dessert arrived: a “chocolate mousse cake” that looked more like a gloppy, messy bundt cake.
“If this were really a gay restaurant,” Bob said, “the desserts would at least be pretty.”
But Sharp’s isn’t a gay restaurant. It’s an all-too-typical diner serving average food in a Midtown neighborhood that’s ironically neither typical nor average. Comedian Jackie Mason once cynically observed that “every time two homosexuals get together, it’s a parade.” But at Sharp’s, there’s no parade. It’s only breakfast.