At Happy Gillis Café & Hangout, a neighborhood gathering place returns to form

A couple of months ago, Todd Schulte and his wife, Tracy Zinn, took over the old Gillis Sundries space at the corner of Gillis and Pacific in the historic Columbus Park neighborhood. Though this two-story brick building had recently been home to a restaurant (SORedux), from the outside it still looked a lot like it must have looked just after World War II.

Before the war, the lower level was divided into a barbershop on one side and a pool hall on the other. Carmelo Guastello, who grew up in this predominantly Italian neighborhood, took over both spaces in 1946 when he opened Gillis Sundries. The original sign still hangs over the front door, just as it did when Carmelo — known to everyone in the old Northeast as “Chee Bay” — sold penny candy, shampoo, comic books, toothbrushes, cigarettes, newspapers and liquor.

Guastello, who sold his store in 1986, celebrated his 85th birthday last week. His friends still call him Chee Bay, a slangy interpretation of an Italian expression his mother used when asking him what he wanted; the corner of Gillis and Pacific boasts an honorary street sign proclaiming it Chee Bay Way. In his day, Carmelo also sold ice-cream sodas, malts and steamed sandwiches — including hot dogs — in his store.

Because it also had a jukebox, a pinball machine and a soda fountain, it was, naturally, a gathering place.

“It was a neighborhood hangout,” recalls Jo Marie Guastello, Carmelo’s daughter. “You got all the neighborhood news at Chee Bay’s.”

Happy Gillis Café & Hangout seems a lot like that, too. With only five tables, a sofa and a couple of comfortable chairs, it feels almost as much like someone’s living room as a restaurant.

Schulte and Zinn opened the place on March 1, after deciding to expand the company, the Happy Soup Eater, which has been delivering cartons of Schulte’s soups to private homes for the past couple of years. The space feels a bit like the You Say Tomato concept — a coffee shop and luncheonette — created two years ago by Mike Pouncil, Randy Parks and Mike Wingard at 28th Street and Holmes. On Saturday and Sunday mornings, everyone eating there seems to know one another.

“I love those guys and that place,” Schulte says. “The only bad thing about working weekends for me is that I can’t eat there.”

It hasn’t happened yet, but I can see that Saturday and Sunday mornings at Happy Gillis might end up as crowded as the brunch shift at You Say Tomato. Maybe busier, because Schulte’s dining area, painted a soothing shade of celery green, is so damn tiny. It was almost SRO on the Sunday that I took Bob and Addison for breakfast.

The room smelled like fresh-brewed coffee and frying eggs, and Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” played over the sound system. Behind the counter, Schulte was cracking eggs into cute little frying pans perched on a hot plate. He looked only slightly frazzled, though he blushed a violent red when one of the customers started singing “Happy Birthday” and everyone else in the place quickly chimed in. It was his 39th, and there he stood, his hands full of eggshells and coffee grounds.

“It’s like spontaneous theater,” Addison said, admiring the different vignettes we saw around the room: a 30-something dad reading the Sunday paper on the sofa while a toddler quietly played with a toy at his feet; a relaxed foursome laughing over their scrambled eggs and buttered toast; at the other end of the room, a sophisticated quartet of 60-ish intellectuals were discussing important things — politics and the economy. I know because I spent more time trying to listen in on their conversation while Addison was ranting about the art scene in the city.

There is art on the walls of Happy Gillis, I should note: vintage prints, framed family photographs and two paint-by-number creations of sailboats in a sunset. I sipped my coffee and went to work on a hefty egg-bacon-and-cheese breakfast sandwich while my dining companions ate eggs and sausages. There’s not much variety in the way of breakfast — Schulte doesn’t have much of a grill. And he might take a little inspiration by sampling one of You Say Tomato’s excellent cinnamon rolls. I bet they’d be hot sellers, along with Gillis’ wonderful apple cake and brownies sitting under glass bells at the counter.

I was still hungry after my breakfast sandwich, so I polished off most of the soup du jour that Addison had ordered: an excellent posole loaded with chicken, cilantro and pillowy puffs of hominy in an addictive spicy broth. The soup was so good that, when I heard Schulte was planning to offer it again the next day, I went back for my own bowl.

It was a cold, wet day, and the soup was as warm and comforting as the hot grilled Cuban sandwich, heaped with ham, roasted pork, pickles, Swiss cheese and mustard. I sat by myself, and there was only one other occupied table in the dining room. Two smartly dressed women seemed to have stumbled onto Happy Gillis by accident.

Shulte and his two-man staff have been slowly discovering what’s popular with his customers — and what isn’t. For example, the New Orleans-style muffaletta isn’t ordered very often, Schulte says. I like a well-stacked muffaletta, but it never occurred to me to request one on any of my three lunches in the joint, probably because the other choices — neatly printed on a big chalkboard on the back wall — sounded a lot more interesting. The extraordinary curried chicken salad that I tasted several days later, crunchy with chopped cashews, was one of the best chicken salad sandwiches I’ve ever eaten.

The biggest surprise has been the positive response to his version of the classic Vietnamese banh mi sandwich. And I understand why: Schulte’s take on banh mi ga (inspired by the French “salad sandwich” of lettuces and vegetables on a crusty baguette) is as tasty as the authentic ones sold just over the Heart of America Bridge at Vinh Hoa in North Kansas City. At Happy Gillis, a hunk of Farm to Market baguette is sliced open, piled with grilled chicken, fresh cilantro-and-scallion salad, jalapeño peppers, marinated carrots and cucumbers and other vegetables, then splashed with nuoc mam fish sauce and sweet chili paste. The presentation of the artfully stacked sandwich was so beautiful, I felt guilty dismantling it just to wolf it all down. But what the hell.

Maybe the banh mi‘s popularity isn’t so surprising, after all. Columbus Park might have been primarily Italian when Carmelo Guastello opened Gillis Sundries, but in the past few decades, Vietnamese immigrants have settled there, too. It’s only natural that a neighborhood hangout would reflect the tastes of everyone who lives nearby. That makes everybody happy.

Categories: Food & Drink, Restaurant Reviews