Kansas City’s long-ignored downtown has been getting a lot of ink these days, thanks to the sound bites issued by our two mouthy mayoral candidates. But no one seems to address the fact that the area once known as “downtown” — particularly the neighborhoods on the east side of Main — has been neglected for so long, there’s not much resembling a “town” there anymore.
If you walk east on the stretch of 18th Street from the corner of Troost to the northeast corner of the Paseo, you’ll see what might pass for an industrial park in the remote corner of any suburb: a handful of ugly, modern buildings (including the mammoth Kansas City Transportation Authority offices) that resemble warehouses, a couple of parking lots, some vacant lots. In the past two decades, only one restaurant has opened in a neighborhood that once had dozens of them — the elegantly appointed Peach Tree Restaurant, which James and Vera Willis launched in a brand-new building in the Historic Jazz District last December. To call the Willises “urban pioneers” would be an understatement.
In 1927, that same stretch of 18th Street, from Troost to the Paseo, was packed with the amenities of a vibrant neighborhood: two candy stores, three billiard parlors, seven grocery stores, eight barbershops and shoe shops, clothing stores, a theater, several drugstores, and nearly a dozen independently owned restaurants, including the Samuel Adams Restaurant and Ching Fong Young’s Chinese Café.
By 1962, many of the neighborhood buildings were razed and the lots left vacant, but a couple of grocery stores remained, as well as three barbershops, a half-dozen taverns and eight small restaurants, such as Lucille’s Dinette and the Shanghai Café. A place called the Rose Room Restaurant once stood on the corner where the apartment building and retail space now houses the Peach Tree Restaurant. But that was before Kansas City’s frenzied expansion southward drained the life force from the inner city. There was still energy in downtown Kansas City — on both the east and west sides — in those days: movie palaces, restaurants, department stores, nightclubs. The exciting part of any town, as Petula Clark sang in her 1964 hit, was still “Downtown.”
In an ideal world, it would take imaginative entrepreneurs like James and Vera Willis — and not an expensive new public arena — to start the ripple of change that ultimately lures suburban-weary diners back to the city. Yet the Willises have done just that, opening a place that does for soul food exactly what the glamorous American Restaurant does for eclectic American regional cuisine.
In her book The Soul of Southern Cooking, Kathy Starr calls soul food “generous and earthy, like the people who created it. I’m not talking about small slivers of skinned chicken breasts surrounded by miniature carrots and radishes cut like roses. I’m talking about something to eat!”
At the Peach Tree Restaurant, the food is indeed generous and earthy. I’d also call it robust, hearty and delicious. But the atmosphere is refined: tables draped in white linen, neatly folded coral napkins that complement the coppery tones of the upholstery, elegant light fixtures and, at the center of the dining room, a gleaming baby grand piano.
“It’s comfortable and beautiful,” said my friend Gail, twisting around in her chair to look around the room. Typical midtowners who rarely venture out of their own familiar neighborhood, Gail and her husband, Howard, had never even heard of the first Willis restaurant — the still popular but less formal Peach Tree Buffet over on Eastwood Trafficway.
“Are you sure there’s a restaurant near 18th and Vine?” Howard had asked. He didn’t really believe me until we walked in and were escorted to a table. Their two kids loved the place immediately, especially when two baskets of freshly baked breads arrived: wedges of crumbly buttermilk cornbread, moist cornbread muffins baked with pieces of chopped sweet potato, and yeasty dinner rolls. Howard was surprised that the place doesn’t serve alcohol (and has no plans to do so) and ordered a glass of lemonade that he insisted tasted like “sweet-and-sour mix.” Iced tea can be ordered either sweetened (and it’s sugary, baby) or plain, and there are two “mocktails” — a Bellini or a Mimosa — made with nonalcoholic sparkling wine.
Sweet drinks and breads complement the fried dishes on the menu, but a little more tartness or spiciness to the entrées would be an asset. Even the most fiery item, “Jazzy Chicken Wings,” is splashed in a hot sauce tempered with sugary glaze. But they are fabulous, heaped onto a massive white plate as part of the Down Home Basket alongside a collection of deep-fried shrimp, mushrooms, green tomatoes and okra in a cornmeal-batter coating, enough to feed at least four ravenous people. They were served with a creamy dressing that we were told was blue cheese but tasted like bottled ranch.
Dinner entrées are served with a choice of two of the restaurant’s seventeen side dishes, which range from a fluffy ball of potent sage-flavored cornbread dressing to creamy macaroni and cheese, and from luscious, long-simmered collard greens to a baked potato (seriously overcooked on one visit). The pan-fried chicken was disappointing, the breast and legs neither as crispy nor as juicy as the superior bird served at the Willises’ buffet restaurant. Ditto for the slightly dry baked chicken, though it looked gorgeous under that translucent amber crust.
A good-sized hunk of pink salmon can be grilled, blackened in spices, or baked in lemon juice. We chose the baked dish for the kids to share (they decided to be adventurous), and it was flaky and moist; after letting me have a tiny taste, the kids gobbled it right up, along with a heap of crispy french fries.
Howard got cocky and ordered his rib eye cooked with blackening seasonings but medium-rare, then pouted when it arrived — an awfully thin 12-ounce cut — with a beautiful, spicy, ebony coating but definitely well-done. The server whisked it away and returned, much later, with a medium-rare steak that Howard pronounced “well-marbled and superbly juicy.” He had just started eating it when dessert arrived.
OK, so there are little kinks yet to be worked out. The servers are pleasant and attentive but can get easily flustered. The young hostesses have terrible telephone manners. And the kitchen is still getting its act together. Long before I made my first foray to the restaurant, I heard from friends that “the food is delicious, but it takes forever to get it.” That problem appears to be solved; on the busy Friday night when I had my second dinner, the kitchen crew was in such a groove that dinners almost flew into the dining room. Mine was the finest pan-fried pork chop I’ve tasted in years, rich and meaty and smothered in a lovely brown gravy.
For that meal, I was with my friend Lou Jane, a longtime downtown resident, who looked around at the attractive, well-dressed crowd and said, “It’s a happening place, a new social hub.”
I could cause a hubbub just trying to describe the Peach Tree’s desserts, versions of the traditional favorites the Willises served at their buffet restaurant for years: a soft, spicy hunk of fragrant bread pudding dripping with vanilla frosting, or a delicately spiced peach cobbler crisscrossed in ribbons of flaky pastry and a big scoop of melting ice cream. There’s a dense sweet-potato pie, too, and my new favorite, a warm slab of crumbly pound cake drizzled with peach nectar.
I looked up from my pound cake on that visit and saw, mounted on the wall, a vintage black-and-white photograph of a long-razed 18th Street neighborhood business, an old gas station selling fuel for 13 cents a gallon. Maybe now that gas costs more than ten times that amount, it will be more cost-effective to stay closer to the heart of Kansas City. The new Peach Tree Restaurant offers everyone a chance to put their money where their mouths are instead of continuing to argue about the best solution for a downtown renaissance. And eating is always preferable to squabbling, don’t you think?