Kansas City, Kansas, finally appears poised to get its long-overdue renaissance.
On February 11, The New York Times reported a 40 percent increase in job applications for people who want to teach school in places such as Kansas City, Kansas. The world’s paper of record attributes this newfound interest to “the sinking economy and a wave of soul-searching after the September 11 attacks.”
The town’s chirpy cheerleader, Mayor Carol Marinovich, recently said the city has “a future … full of promise.”
This kind of news provokes snickers among people who live in the Missouri city of the same name and in the richer suburbs of Johnson County. After all, Kansas City, Kansas, has been the butt of endless jokes and the location of what seems like an almost daily barrage of cannibalistic stabbings, hostage situations and murders, murders and more murders. I have a lot of friends who live in Kansas City, Kansas, and they’re so accustomed to being insulted about the place (“You live where?”) that their muscles tense up the minute they have to give out their addresses. One friend of mine who lives in Missouri calls KCK the “wild, wild west.” My Leawood friend still blushes every shade of red when she reveals that she grew up near Bishop Ward High School, as if it automatically meant she lived on the wrong side of the tracks. Maybe in Leawood (which has its own unpleasant history of discrimination), it does.
“Wouldn’t it be poetic justice,” suggested a coworker of mine, “if all the sophisticated intellectuals from the coasts moved to Kansas City, Kansas?”
If New York City’s brains and freshly minted moguls really did move to Wyandotte County, they’d have to get used to taking their meals at the unofficial soul of downtown Kansas City, Kansas: Loretta’s Café.
At first glance, Loretta’s Café — set between a used-car lot and a Rent-A-Center — has more in common with a tank-town diner than a metropolitan gathering place. But appearances can be deceiving: Loretta’s is famous. Oprah‘s crew members ate there five years ago when they came to town to film a segment about the café’s namesake owner, Loretta Colombel. And if there’s news happening in this part of the city, TV reporters always know they can pick up a sound bite — either from one of the customers sitting at the white Formica counter or from the outspoken Loretta herself, a member of the Board of Public Utilities.
The restaurant opened in the late 1930s as Kirk Kastener’s, a 24-hour diner with ten stools. Colombel started working there as a waitress 27 years ago, when it was called Feagan’s Café; she bought it in 1993, changing the restaurant’s name and shortening its hours to breakfast and lunch only.
It’s a rare moment when Colombel doesn’t have a cigarette dangling from her lips. Ditto for the grill cook, Gary, as well as most of the patrons. At the far end of the grill half of the restaurant, four tiny booths each boast ashtrays the size of salad bowls. In the adjoining building, there’s another, slightly fancier dining room evocative of smoky, backroom deals. “That’s where all the bigwigs eat,” says Angela, the longtime waitress. “The lawyers, the cops, the politicians.”
But the place never seems smoky. The conversation at the counter may get fiery, especially when politics are being discussed, but the smoldering tobacco never overwhelms the more palatable fragrances: onions and chopped potatoes browning on the grill, bacon sizzling in fatty grease and earthy bitterness steaming off a cup of strong coffee.
“We serve plain, good home-cooking at reasonable prices,” says Colombel. “If I raised prices a quarter, my customers would have heart attacks.”
They might have heart attacks anyway if they make too much a habit of Colombel’s pork tenderloin dinner with lumpy mashed potatoes doused with a bucketload of cream gravy. The meat was a standard-issue frozen tenderloin patty deep-fried to a crackly crunch yet still tender inside. It came with a Parker House roll (with Country Crock instead of butter) and two side dishes. Loretta offers half a dozen choices for those sides; at that meal, I picked cottage cheese and spinach, which had been boiled down to mush.
“This isn’t exactly a heart-healthy meal,” said my friend Bob, who has already survived a mild heart attack. That didn’t stop him from plowing into his chicken-fried steak, which was also covered in gravy. Loretta’s menu has no “light” section (unless you count the five salad choices), but when you’re in Kansas City, Kansas, you do as the natives do.
I had started that lunch with a bowl of chicken and dumplings that reminded me of my Ohio-born grandmother’s: thick, doughy dumplings and brawny chunks of chicken swimming in a creamy, golden gravy. And I ended it on an even more debauched note.
“We have home-made cinnamon rolls,” said Angela. “Just out of the oven.”
“Bring it on,” I said — and I wasn’t disappointed. The hot, pillowy spiral of pastry was coated with a thick sugary glaze.
You can order a cinnamon roll for breakfast, too, and all of those New York émigrés will find that’s the best time to hang out at Loretta’s if they want to get a solid flavor of this tightly knit community. “Our customers are like family,” says Colombel. “If Angie’s too busy to pour coffee, one of the regular customers will get up and do it.”
Cracking eggs over the grill, Gary can tell you what this stretch of downtown was like back when the shuttered cinema down the street, the marquee of which still reads “Praise the Lord” in black letters, was the busy Cameo Theater. And how the street was vibrant with shops, bakeries, beauty salons and little family-owned cafes like Loretta’s. Hers is the only surviving eatery, having outlasted all of its nearby contemporaries — Mink’s Café, Jim’s Lunch, the Southern Café. There are still places to shop, though the strip now reflects the multicultural influences of the neighborhood.
The morning fare at Loretta’s, however, remains pure Americana: flaky biscuits get a soft blanket of peppery gravy with hefty chunks of sausage; cheese oozes out the sides of paper-thin omelets; thick but light pancakes get grilled until they’re just crispy around the edges. While Colombel and her colleagues at the BPU were busy deciding they wouldn’t make rate-payers cover the cost of ice-storm damage and trucks were cleaning up debris all over town, I was going to work on the Garbage Omelet, an enticing concoction of eggs, cheese, chopped ham, peppers, onions and tomatoes, sided with a mound of O’Brien potatoes loaded with bits of crispy bacon.
This restaurant, after all, has been shoveling out these sorts of workingman’s breakfasts for decades, and a plate of corned beef hash topped with a scrambled egg, accompanied by a stack of buttered toast, hasn’t lost any of its allure — even if the hash comes straight out of a can. Hell, it’s the same stuff my mom still makes, from the same kind of can.
There aren’t many places like Loretta’s anymore, certainly not in this neighborhood. The cheeseburgers at the McDonald’s up the street may be cheaper, but they’re not any better. And if it remains as indomitable as its feisty owner, I suspect Loretta’s Café will still be around when all of New York’s sophisticates really do resettle in Kansas City, Kansas.