East of Eden


If you have some spare spinach around, say $225,000 or so, and want to buy Kansas City’s original vegetarian restaurant, the building is for sale at the corner of Ninth Street and Tracy. The front windows are boarded up, and the second-floor windows, which gaze out from a long-neglected ballroom, are open to the elements. But this solidly constructed building, the former Unity Inn, is a poignant reminder that vegetarian dining was never a novelty in meat-and-potatoes Kansas City. It was as much an option in 1920 as it is today.

In fact, Kansas City’s first vegetarian restaurant, the original Unity Inn, opened in an old house on the same spot at Ninth and Tracy in 1906. Unity founders Charles and Myrtle Fillmore preferred the meatless lifestyle and opened a restaurant just down the street from their church’s brand-new administration building. For Kansas City diners, the Unity Inn wasn’t just odd because there weren’t any beef or chicken dishes on the menu — it didn’t charge money, either! According to Tom Taylor, Unity’s public-relations manager, the food at the restaurant was served in return for a free-will offering.

I wish Kansas City’s best-known vegetarian restaurant, the ten-year-old Eden Alley — located in the basement of the Unity Temple on the Country Club Plaza but neither owned nor operated by Unity — operated on a free-will basis, because I’d probably eat there a lot more often. The current prices aren’t unreasonable, but a nearly free meal could make me overlook a lot of the little irritations about Eden Alley that have driven me bananas over the years.

I’m almost reluctant to confess those petty annoyances, because so many of my friends are passionate about the place (including my regular dining companion, the beefsteak-loving Bob). If I even whisper that the ambience is nonexistent, the service inconsistent, the food hit-or-miss, I get bombarded with comebacks like “The food is so fresh and attractive!” and “It’s filled with such interesting people!”

Interesting people? Well, interesting-looking people, particularly if you’re turned on by men with scraggly white beards wearing Birkenstocks with dark socks, or humorless middle-aged women in desperate need of new hairstyles. Oops, did I say that? Wash out my mouth with some soy-based soap!

The restaurant, which is operated by Sandy Corder-Clootz (who founded it with former business partner Monica Jones in 1993), is either loved or loathed. Another friend of mine, a very talented local chef, rolls her eyes at the mention of its name. “It’s not Eden Alley. It’s Paradise Lost,” she insists. “It reinforces the stereotype that vegetarian restaurants are boring and bland.”

That stereotype may be true, though I’ve had some incredibly positive experiences in veg joints over the years. That includes a long stint working as a waiter in a Midwestern macrobiotic restaurant where the food was absolutely delicious, even if the décor was ghastly and the unsmiling owner looked like an unhealthy ghoul. Honestly, I don’t think that Eden Alley’s cuisine is boring or bland (although the veggie burger comes dangerously close), but the atmosphere is so dreary that it puts a damper on the kitchen’s most imaginative dishes, not to mention any stimulating conversation.

“It’s like eating in a gloomy high school cafeteria,” my friend Carol said, noting the dark-green linoleum floors, the dim lighting, the moody new-age music. The green chalkboard on one side of the room, which once displayed the daily specials, now boasts an inspirational message: “The only true security in this world can be found in the process of giving love.”

“And I love this place,” Bob said. He sounded truly secure as he dipped a slice of warm pita into a little container of smooth but ungarlicky hummus. We were dining with Lou Jane and Roberto, who admitted that it had been years since they’d visited the restaurant. Me, too, for that matter, and my last visit had been so unremarkable that I was having a hard time remembering it. But the menu did seem to be more limited than I recalled.


“The menu seems a little bland,” Roberto said, “unless you’re passionate about health food.”

Health food! Now there’s a 1970s phrase that fell out of favor about the same time as the Veg-O-Matic. But Eden Alley is all about healthy eating (if you don’t count the delicious, mercifully fattening desserts). Even the falafel is baked, not fried. Having sampled the plump, soft, gluten-free Eden Alley version twice, I prefer the crunchier, unhealthier, deep-fried version.

Even when this restaurant’s kitchen takes a walk on the wilder side, as with the penne made with a flaming splash of vodka, tomatoes, chili flakes and a touch of cream, it’s not very decadent. The dish had a nice kick to it, thanks to the chilis (and maybe a residual hint of booze), but it just wasn’t very exciting. I wished I had ordered Bob’s dinner: a fat, stuffed tortilla called Raul’s Round-Up, which was tightly packed with Yukon potatoes, brown rice and three cheeses and plopped on a puddle of spicy cream sauce.

In an effort to be daring, Roberto had ordered that night’s special, a faux-Reuben sandwich made with strips of portabella mushroom, caramelized onion and tomato in a curl of pita bread. I thought it tasted darned close to the real thing, but Roberto cracked that the hefty sandwich was more Rubenesque than Reuben.

Lou Jane, sadly, got the Grateful Dud of the night. The vegan-friendly spinach and mushroom loaf — a concoction of bread crumbs, spinach, mushrooms, rice, onions, tofu, garlic and herbs — sounded great, but Lou’s loaf was clearly a reheated leftover; it was as dry as a sponge, and the bottom was blackened with scorch marks. I took a taste and found it to be an interesting culinary experiment. “I’ll bet it’s good when it’s fresh,” she said brightly.

And I did taste a fresher, much better version of the loaf a couple of days later when I returned for lunch with Carol and Denise. It was part of a tapas platter that also included the colorful Betty Bailey Berry Salad, loaded with tart apples, vibrantly red beets, mandarin oranges, dried cranberries, red onions and feta cheese. But even as she raved about the creamy taziki sauce, the lovely baba ghanouj, the divine chocolate cake layered with cream and mandarin oranges, Carol complained that the interior of the restaurant was depressing.

At sixtysomething, Carol can vaguely remember the old Unity Inn’s fabled interior. Before it was gutted in the 1960s, it was extremely beautiful, with latticed walls, arched windows, a complete soda fountain and an ornate marble drinking fountain that’s now reportedly being used as a flower planter somewhere on the city’s east side. Eden Alley’s décor is obviously more minimalist, in part because it shares space not just with the church but also with a bookstore. “They’ve actually done a very creative job with what they have to work with,” said Denise, a feng shui expert. “It’s a very comfortable and soothing space.”

Maybe I’d been too hard on the place. Returning the next night for another dinner, I tallied up all the things I liked about Eden Alley. There was the accessible parking in one of the covered Plaza garages. And there were the servers, who were so unflappably cheery that I could have asked them to bring me hummus and go change the oil in my Dodge and they would have giggled, then run out to do it.


The place wasn’t very busy that night, but a gorgeous young couple sat at one table. Seated nearby was the bearded man with the Birkenstocks and black socks. Bob ordered the egg-salad bruschetta, which was the most colorful sandwich I’d ever seen — sunny-yellow egg salad heaped on grilled sourdough and layered with green pickles, bright-red tomato slices and purple onion. There’s a cheddar, blue cheese and apple version of the bruschetta, too, which I should have ordered instead of that less-than-intoxicating vodka penne.

And when our angelic-faced server brought out the dessert tray, which included a chocolate-and-peanut-butter bread pudding, a lemony poppy-seed cake and a superb layer cake dubbed the “Mighty Mocha,” I was hopelessly tempted to do something very, very naughty in Eden.


Categories: Food & Drink, Restaurant Reviews