As a travel writer (and as a traveler), I seek out the places that feel emblematic of the place I’m visiting, with a storied history and local cuisine, with atmosphere, character and grit. Some of those places, sadly, have been felled by the pandemic as I learned in a NYTimes story yesterday. Oddly, we drove past The Rieger restaurant in Kansas City during a day trip there on Saturday and vowed to return once we can to eat at a place that not only had inventive food but allegedly a bathroom that gangster Al Capone once peed in. Sadly it is no more, as the NYTimes story reported. I had been to three of the nine restaurants mentioned in the story – including the Brookville Hotel in Abilene and the Cake Cafe in New Orleans.
I first went to the Brookville Hotel – which specialized in fried chicken and biscuits – in the mid-1980s when I lived in Wichita. The 1.5 hour drive to the tiny worn town of Brookville was worth it, to eat in the old tumbledown hotel that was mostly (or maybe completely) a restaurant by that time. I took many a visitor there as well, since it was so evocative of old time Kansas. A lot of atmosphere was lost when the restaurant moved to a faux hotel recreation on the edge of Interstate 70 in Abilene but the chicken and biscuits were still great. Our memory is the wait staff only asked two questions: What kind of salad dressing do you want? What do you want to drink? Otherwise the order was chicken and biscuits.
I wandered into the Cake Cafe a few years ago while exploring the Marigny and Bywater districts. It was a cheerful alternative feeling coffee house, painted yellow on a quiet corner. Very cozy and they were advertising their NOLA-classic King Cakes with the little plastic baby in them. I had only an orange juice, resisting the tempting pastries (which I now regret) and sat outside, back in the pre-pandemic days when you didn’t do this for your health and safety.
The pandemic has caused so much devastation – first and foremost, deaths and lasting health consequences for people, but also devastation to businesses and livelihoods, some that make a place distinctive. On a happier note, we did get carryout at two Kansas City classics that appear to be hanging in there — ribs from Gates BBQ and a chicken dinner with cinnamon buns (not biscuits) at Stroud’s. We need to remember to keep patronizing these places, helping them to survive.