A couple of years ago, I found an old postcard from the late 1930s, I believe, of a snazzy-looking dining room in a restaurant that once stood at 14th Street and Baltimore. The place was called Southern Mansion, and if the postcard is an accurate depiction of the actual place, it must have been a happening spot. It was a white-tablecloth dining room with mirrored columns, a spacious dance floor and a bandstand big enough for a small orchestra. The restaurant’s motto (on the card, anyway) was “Famous for food.”
“It was probably more famous for gambling,” says veteran talk-show host Walt Bodine, who remembers hearing about police raids on the place back in the 1940s. “I heard stories about cards and dice being frantically flushed down toilets. But I never ate there.”
Restaurateur Jim Eddy, who did eat there, laughs when I ask if the place served real Southern food — you know, soul food. “It was more like fried chicken, steaks and prime rib,” he said. “If you wanted the food we now call soul food, you had to go east of the Paseo, over near the 18th and Vine neighborhood. That’s where the jazz clubs were and little restaurants that served real Southern cooking.”
It’s not always a good thing when history repeats itself, but in the case of the three-year-old Peach Tree Restaurant, it’s a very good thing. Back when I first reviewed the Peach Tree (“Soul Survivor, March 20, 2003), its owners, James and Vera Willis, had defied the naysayers and opened the first new restaurant on the east side of 18th Street in many decades. And not just any restaurant but a beautiful one.
There are similarities between the main dining room at the Peach Tree and the postcard of the long-forgotten Southern Mansion. Both boast tables draped in white linen, a shiny grand piano, rust-colored carpet and an air of old-fashioned graciousness. A big part of the Peach Tree’s charm is that it has more in common with family-owned restaurants from an earlier generation than with the soulless corporate chain operations that dominate today.
“It has elegance and dignity,” said my usually acerbic friend Ned, who had never eaten at the Peach Tree until I brought him with me a few weeks ago. Southern-born Ned had heard that there was a restaurant at the corner of 18th Street and the Paseo but was confused about its connection with the Peach Tree Buffet over on Eastwood Trafficway. Was the newer venue a buffet? Had the old Peach Tree moved?
No on both counts. Both restaurant operations are owned by James and Vera Willis, but the place on Eastwood Trafficway is still an all-you-can-eat buffet (one in which I’ve stuffed myself silly way too many times), and the Peach Tree Restaurant is more formal, with attentive servers and live entertainment three nights a week.
When the Peach Tree Restaurant first opened, the Willises didn’t serve alcohol and didn’t plan to do so. If you wanted a mimosa cocktail, for example, it would be made with nonalcoholic sparkling wine instead of champagne. Realizing that a good percentage of their downtown clientele preferred Kendall Jackson to Sierra Mist, the Willises finally repealed their prohibition. There’s still no smoking allowed, but there’s now a small but tasteful wine list.
Ned didn’t order a glass of wine with his pork chops, which may have been a blessing, because Ned gets more animated, vocal and flamboyantly Southern after a swig or two. But even stone-cold sober, he embarked on a long-winded soliloquy about his meal. He loved every morsel.
At the Peach Tree, pork chops can be prepared four ways: grilled, deep-fried, barbecued, or smothered in thick brown gravy. Ned couldn’t decide which sounded best and was thrilled when our server offered him the option of getting two different chops, one grilled, the other blanketed in gravy. “They’re fabulous,” Ned said, relishing each bite. “Better than Mama used to make.”
I can only vaguely recall my own mother’s ill-fated attempt to make salmon croquettes, but I do remember that she once tried a magazine recipe and came up with something that could be identified as neither salmon nor croquette. The jazz singer Queen Bey has long insisted that the Peach Tree’s crispy, cornmeal-breaded patties are the best in town. I think they could be the only croquettes in the city; I can’t remember the last time I saw the dish on another local menu.
I was game to play croquette, and I also ordered the fish cakes, which were served, like all entrées at the Peach Tree, with a choice of two side dishes. The cornbread dressing and simmered collard greens were calling me, and the combination was terrific. The croquettes’ paper-thin crispy crust encased a light, fluffy filling of pink salmon, eggs and onion. It was tasty enough not to require tartar sauce, but what the hell, I added it anyway. The fluffy ball of cornbread dressing was seasoned with green peppers, and the collard greens, just slightly bitter, were delicious.
When I returned for dinner with Marilyn and Lou Jane, we got right down to business with the hefty appetizer platter called the Down-Home Sampler. A couple could easily make a full dinner out of this array of “jazzy” chicken wings (more sweet than spicy); fried shrimp and catfish fingers; and lots of surprisingly ungreasy deep-fried mushrooms, okra and thin-sliced green tomatoes.
“Why did we order all this?” Lou Jane asked as she stuck a fork into a fried mushroom. “It’s almost too much.”
But that’s what soul food is all about, I told her, quoting cookbook author Kathy Starr, who describes soul cuisine as the opposite extreme of haute cuisine: “I’m not talking about small slivers of skinned chicken breast surrounded by miniature carrots … I’m talking about something to eat.”
Forget talking — or dieting, for that matter. The Peach Tree is a place for eating. Let’s move on to the silvery bread basket heaped with dense sweet-potato muffins and the most gloriously fluffy yeast dinner rolls. Can you ignore the temptation of rolls the size of softballs? We absolutely could not.
Marilyn had skipped lunch that day, so she could indulge guilt-free on a plate of crispy fried chicken (vastly improved since my 2003 review). She added steamed okra and chopped tomatoes on the side. Lou Jane deftly removed the luscious, tender oxtail meat from the jumble of gravy-slathered bones on her plate. Braised oxtail is a signature dish here, and it’s excellent, even if it requires a little work extracting the meat from the bone.
I wavered between the baked neck bones and the baby-back ribs but finally decided on the meatloaf because it sounded like the perfect comfort food for a cold night. Ditto for sides of macaroni and cheese and more simmered collard greens. I was surprised that the dense meatloaf slices were so thin and dainty, but those mysterious “Peach Tree seasonings” turned an ordinary loaf into something delectable.
Over the past few years, the Willises have added a couple of desserts, including thick slices of an iced chocolate cake. It’s the classic Southern sweets — the standards at the buffet restaurant — that really score here. There’s the spicy hunk of soft bread pudding glazed with vanilla frosting, the peach cobbler baked under a thatch of pastry, or a wedge of smooth sweet-potato pie.
The restaurant attracts a mix of diners that’s all ages, races and social strata. The lunch crowd is mostly downtown business types, but there’s a livelier group during the dinner hour. The place runs like a well-polished machine, which only adds to the comfort level. After all, it’s not just good, home-style food that soothes the soul but also the calm and inviting atmosphere. That’s why the Peach Tree Restaurant isn’t just a bright spot in the redevelopment of downtown Kansas City. It’s a beacon.