Petticoat Junction

In “The Yellow Bird,” one of my favorite short stories by Tennessee Williams, Alma Tutwiler, the daughter of a prim preacher, finally rebels against her father’s Victorian restraints and takes up smoking, drinking and swearing (not to mention bleaching her hair). She also takes up with dozens of lovers in this morality tale gone awry: The town’s good girl goes to hell in a handbasket.

In Lee’s Summit, a new restaurant called Victorian Peddler is the same story told backward. A few years ago, the former Jones Lumber Mill offices across from the railroad tracks were turned into a dark, smoky joint called Mojo’s, which one Lee’s Summit resident later confessed to me was “kind of a biker bar.” But Mojo’s found a kind of restaurant redemption just a year ago, when its owners turned the place into a tidy little upscale bistro called the Cork & Grille. That café lasted only a few months before the newest proprietors, Mark and Melissa Clark — owners of a combination restaurant and gift shop in the historic hamlet of Lexington, Missouri — took over the space and gave it the ultimate ladylike makeover. Big, bad Mojo’s is now the well-scrubbed Victorian Peddler of Lee’s Summit, the perfectly dignified addition to its newly gentrified stretch of neighborhood.

What had once been the actual lumberyard behind the old Jones Lumber building now boasts a stretch of quaint brick storefronts populated by retail shops like Finishings for Her, a clothing emporium that was such a lure to my two dinner companions one night that I sat alone at my table in the Victorian Peddler for twenty minutes waiting for Carol and Debbie to finish trying on clothes next door.

Their shopping spree gave me time to look at all the changes that the Clarks and chef-manager Andy Theroff have made to the former Mojo’s, now as frilly and pretty as a small-town debutante. The place is perfumed with the fragrance from the inventory of the gifts and accessories displayed throughout the dining room. The tables share space with a potpourri of scented candles and bath soaps and all manner of oddities: Wizard of Oz music boxes, faux Tuscan-style pottery (made in China), floral notecards, gothic birdcages, stuffed teddy bears, bottles of bubble bath, and happy-face golf balls.

The tables are uncloaked but set with woven khaki place mats and soft-fringed ebony napkins. The glassware is thick and heavy, the silverware is shiny, and in the center of each table is a little white plate topped with a paper doily and a neatly arranged assortment of prepackaged jam, butter and “whipped spread.”

“I wonder if that means we’ll get hot rolls with dinner,” said Debbie, sweeping over to the table with her purchases. Well, you might have thought that we would — I had actually spied a big pan of puffy, yeasty rolls sitting up at the kitchen window. But we didn’t, because our waitress didn’t remember to bring them with our dinner. She was a pleasant, efficient young woman (a veteran of the Clarks’ restaurant in Lexington) with a snappy answer for everything: “We’re rather understaffed tonight,” she explained later. “And the rolls come out at such erratic times, I forgot to bring them.”

Not that she was any more apologetic about not bringing the white “special” board, which sits on a metal easel, over to the table so that we could see what that night’s dinner specials were. Oh, she had referred to it offhandedly as we looked over the dinner menu. “If you want to know what we have on the dessert list, we have those boards over there,” she said, pointing across the dining room. It occurred to me then that she might have brought it over for us to see, but her non-Victorian, don’t-fuck-with-me manner scared me.


We took her advice, turning in unison to look toward the board, which was unfortunately facing another table occupied by that night’s token celebrity in the dining room. We recognized him immediately. “It’s the man who does the Ray Adams Toyota commercials!” whispered Carol. We all craned our necks to confirm that it was, indeed, the legendary car dealer. Debbie took a sip from her raspberry-lemonade iced tea and winked at us. “This is the Spago of Lee’s Summit,” she said. We had hoped to see some other demicelebrity arrive during dinner — maybe Rochelle from the Carpet Corner commercials — but the only other memorable patron was a young woman wearing Pat Benatar’s cast-off shag hairdo and platform shoes, who spent most of her meal running out the front door to light up a cigarette.

Smoking isn’t permitted in the tastefully appointed Victorian Peddler dining room. (It’s acceptable on the outdoor patio dining area.) In fact, the place is so genteel that I felt guilty swearing when I accidentally bit my lip chewing on a crunchy — overfried tasteless, actually — ring of calamari. The calamari could have been fried rubber bands for all I knew, though the accompanying marinara sauce had some punch.

I liked the so-called Miniature Beef Wellington appetizers, though they bore no resemblance to that distinctive British dish of beef and foie gras. These were simply meatballs wrapped in puff pastry, baked and served without any sort of sauce. “We’re taking them off the menu anyway,” the waitress said, shrugging. “No one ordered them.”

Things improved dramatically from this point on. The dinners included a choice of three salads; the Caesar (light on the garlic) and greens tossed in a piquant sherry vinaigrette with toasted walnuts and blue cheese was particularly memorable. The dinners, truly small-town American classics, were even better. The Southern fried chicken was moist and luscious under a sizzling amber crust. The fat french-fried shrimp had a thick armor rather than a light, crispy breading, but the fiery-sweet pepper-and-apricot dipping sauce masked a lot of sins.

Carol gave thumbs-up to a hefty slab of perfectly grilled salmon that came drizzled with a cold dill sauce. Debbie ordered penne in a decadently thick cream sauce (with the vaguest hint of garlic) with heaps of pink shrimp; she said it was so rich that it would have been “scandalous” to finish it in one sitting.

That scandal was nothing compared to the lustful frenzy that possessed us when the desserts we ordered arrived: a bowl of heavenly hot, sweet blackberries bubbling under a flaky crust and a cloud of whipped cream; and, even more delectable, a fluffy square of steaming bread pudding that all but floated up from a pool of caramel syrup.

Debbie thought she was having a sugar overload when she felt the building start to vibrate, but it was only a train racing along the tracks that run parallel to the restaurant, rattling every knickknack in the place.

The trains, the tchotchkes (“They even have things for sale in the ladies room,” Debbie said), the tinkly piano music that plays over the sound system — each is part of this restaurant’s unique charm. It reminded me a lot of small-town dining rooms I visited as a child with my parents. They didn’t pretend to be sophisticated or to serve haute cuisine, but they still maintained a kind of dignity and style that no modern chain restaurant can replicate.


A few days later, I returned — with my friend Bob — to the Peddler for a pleasant lunch. OK, I could quibble that the Cheesy Broccoli Soup was lukewarm (as was my wedge of turkey-and-Swiss quiche). But Bob loved his chicken salad, which was served on a cold croissant (“The menu said warm croissant,” he noted critically), and the translucent wedge of old-fashioned buttermilk chess pie.

“It’s hard to believe this was ever Mojo’s,” he said, looking around the room. “You can’t even see that there is a bar from the dining room anymore.”

But there is still a bar, where good wine is poured more frequently than beer, and in the evenings customers can dine quietly by candlelight. Yes, there’s a Disneyesque quality to the Victorian Peddler’s ambience (particularly in that mix of culinary and retail), but the small-town theme doesn’t seem forced or phony. Still, Lee’s Summit continues to explode as one of Missouri’s fastest-growing cities, so pedal there quickly, before this offbeat Victorian isn’t a secret anymore.

Categories: Food & Drink, Restaurant Reviews