Open-and-Shut Cases

The Savoy Grill (see review) appears to be the oldest continuously operating restaurant in Kansas City — but there’s always been debate about that. Rivals to the title include the New York Delicatessen (which first opened downtown in 1905, though it’s now at 7016 Troost) and the location at 51st and Main where Joe Accurso runs his namesake deli. (Some kind of restaurant has been operating there since 1905.)

The Savoy, which opened in 1903, would seem to have a clear claim to the title. But for years, restaurant-industry observers have told stories about how the legendary dining room was closed for a spell during the Great Depression. Most historical accounts, however, suggest that the Savoy Grill closed for only a few days in 1937. Newspaper reports of the time suggest there was “a great clamor” by the public, and the restaurant quickly reopened.

By the 1920s, dozens of restaurants, lunch counters and diners thrived in booming downtown Kansas City. Among them were the town’s first American Restaurant, at 311 West 12th Street (no relation to the elegant but overrated dining room at Crown Center), and the very first Blue Bird Café, at 12th and Charlotte, many blocks — and light years in style — from the vegetarian and organic-conscious Blue Bird Bistro (née Café) at 17th and Summit.

Many of the Savoy’s culinary neighbors around the Garment District didn’t make it beyond the postwar years. Long gone are the Magic Tea Shop, the Electric Waffle Shop and the Sanitary Sandwich Shop (a tidy name that definitely warrants a comeback) and two joints operated by uncles of broadcasting legend Walt Bodine. William Bodine‘s place was at 425 West 12th Street, across downtown from Russell Bodine‘s, at 926 Locust.

“They were simple places, basic neighborhood restaurants that served simple food,” Walt recalls. “Uncle Russell’s place was bigger, and my grandmother worked in the kitchen. They had a lot of regular customers, including one man who waited breathlessly for the day that custard pie was on the dessert menu. He would order a slice, then cover it with ketchup.”

The most pressing restaurant-longevity question of the moment surrounds the 97-year-old deli where Joe Accurso has served lunch and dinner for the past eighteen years: Will it still be around for its centennial? Accurso says rumors that the business might move aren’t true. Local real-estate powerhouse DST plans to raze the nearby Cabaret nightclub (5024 Main) as part of its plans to develop the residential neighborhood west of Main. But Accurso says that as far as he knows, the venerable Main Street Deli will stay standing. “DST hasn’t approached my landlord at all,” Accurso says. “I don’t think we’re going anywhere.”

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