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KCUR's Gina Kaufmann brings you personal essays about how we're all adapting to a very different world.

A Distanced Farewell To The Iconic Kansas City Restaurants Closing During The Pandemic

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Crysta Henthorne
/
KCUR
We already miss the familiar spots that have closed due to COVID-19. And it's not over yet.

This town won't be the same without the bars, restaurants, and neighborhood joints closing their doors right now. But the magnitude of the loss won't really hit us until we're ready to go back out again.

After months of dire predictions about the long-term impact of COVID-19 on Kansas City restaurants, the last few weeks have been brutal. Most of us are processing the news through a flurry of Facebook posts from favorite establishments announcing they're shutting their doors for good.

The bad news always begins the same way: "It is with a heavy heart..." — the online equivalent of, you might want to sit down for this.

Bluestem. Gojo. Poi-O. The Corner. The Rieger. Sobahn. Shio Ramen. KC Pinoy. Webster House. Brady's Public House (formerly Mike's Tavern). Urban Table. Karbón.

And that's to say nothing of places going into hibernation for the winter, with post-COVID re-openings intended but not guaranteed — Harry's Bar and Tables, perched at the corner of Westport and Pennsylvania, is on that list — or places now reducing their hours and menus, begging patrons to help them hang on. Critics' darlings have not been spared that fate; the Antler Room, named one of America's Best New Restaurants by Bon Appetit in 2017, is down to four nights a week for dinner, with no pretense that the move is for anything but survival.

Coming to terms with the losses from my couch has been strange. Each announcement sets off a slideshow of memories in my mind, with scenes capturing a once-ordinary social life that now seems impossibly exotic.

Imagine, today, sitting at a table with strangers at Gojo, the crowded, dimly lit Japanese steakhouse between the Plaza and Westport that opened in 1978. For 40 years, tableside chefs theatrically chopped and sizzled ingredients while casually tossing shrimp into people's mouths. In 2020, the prospect of it sounds insane. But in the memory slideshow, there I am, ready to catch my first bites of dinner, my unmasked mouth wide open like it's no big deal, the laughter of strangers a symphony of aerosols all around me.

I remember one restaurant at a time.

The Corner, in Westport, where lines used to unfurl down the block for hangover-friendly food on Sunday mornings. Sahara on 51st Street, where a tight lunch break could easily accommodate a falafel sandwich over televised soccer. The Denny's location on the southern edge of the downtown loop, where suburban teenagers nearing curfew filtered out as night-shift workers filtered in, sharing a secular communion over late-night omelets and a fabulous view of the city skyline.

I haven't quite redrawn my personal map of the city to account for all of these missing reference points. It's like I moved away and don't know what to expect when I get home. Except that I'm right here.

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Photo Illustration-Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3

Getting a solid count of all the Kansas City restaurants that have closed isn't as straightforward as it might seem.

That's partly because so many places are in limbo. Is a place that's closed until there's a vaccine really going to open again? I'm answering my own rhetorical question with a message cribbed from the Magic 8 Ball.

Reply hazy, try again.

Danielle Lehman hosts and produces Open Belly, a podcast about immigrant-run restaurants in Kansas City and beyond. She also runs a website that's grown into a movement, Curbside KC, mobilizing restaurant lovers wanting to support the food service industry through pop-ups, limited edition t-shirt sales and more. Even Lehman is caught off guard by some of the closures.

"For the longest time, I didn't realize that Freshwater had closed," she says, citing an example. "I remember trying to get takeout from them early on in the pandemic and then they just like, didn't answer the phone."

Lehman explains why some restaurants are closing with fanfare, while others are slipping away quietly.

"People are having to make these decisions really quickly. It's not a big surprise to anybody that they might not make it through, but then there comes this moment in time where they have to make that decision. And it's usually happening within a matter of a couple of days. They have a bad weekend or something changes with the mandates. Whatever it is, they say, 'Okay, this is kind of the final straw.'"

The cumulative loss of so many restaurants is heavy. "This is the heart and soul of our city," says Lehman.

That's a difficult thing to express in the midst of a deadly pandemic. Families throughout the metro are experiencing horrors that will change them forever. The loss of human life is undeniably grim. Losing a favorite place to meet up for small plates is trivial by comparison.

That being said, as we look forward to coming out of our houses and celebrating together when this is finally behind us, we may be imagining a reunion with a city that, in some ways, no longer exists.

"On some level it does seem a little funny to be talking about, 'Oh my goodness, you know, my poor favorite neighborhood restaurant,'" says Francis Lam, a former food columnist for the New York Times who now hosts The Splendid Table, which airs on KCUR every Sunday. "But it's not just one restaurant going under, right?"

Indeed, it's not. Nationally, more than 100,000 restaurants have closed. Those that remain open have laid off around 80% of their staff.

According to Lam, a restaurant isn't just a commercial operation. "It's a cultural operation," he says.

When you add up the Korean place in a strip mall, the coffee shop in the Crossroads, the fine dining establishment in a rehabbed schoolhouse right beside the performing arts center, what we're losing is not just food. It's culture. It's sense of place.

Facebook posts from restaurateurs saying goodbye to their businesses come with heaps of comments from Kansas Citians who share particular memories of each particular place. Bluestem inspires memories of special anniversary dinners. Fans of the Corner remember servers who took care of them with endless coffee refills. Gojo customers remember the past: birthday parties, a charismatic cook who'd been there for decades, and of course, the yellow sauce.

Originally meant for a shrimp appetizer, the sauce developed a cult following, to the point where most of the food on the menu became, to regulars, a vehicle for yellow sauce. And though you can still buy it in a bottle, somehow that's not quite the same.

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In this vintage photograph, chef Jo Yamanaka (center), founder of Gojo Japanese Steakhouse, sits with family and a bartender named Jimmy.

I hadn't been to Gojo in years when I heard the news, and I'll be honest: I probably wasn't headed back anytime soon, pandemic or no. But I still felt a pang in my heart reading the memories generations of Kansas Citians have shared there.

I told Francis Lam about it, hoping he could help me figure out why these comment threads made me so sad. He suggests that what I'm grieving is something that seems small, but isn't.

"It's the little things that make you know who you are and where you're from. You know about the yellow sauce at that restaurant, just like your neighbor does, you know? It's just, it sounds tiny. It sounds inconsequential. And yes, in the big picture, maybe the yellow sauce is tiny and inconsequential, but all those things add up. All the yellow sauces, all the extra-hot salsas."

Lam points out that in a community as diverse and multicultural as ours, restaurants reflecting the backgrounds of the neighbors we might not otherwise get to meet are important points of contact. People's stories overlap, if only for the duration of a meal, making us a little more aware of our place in the world. Not having that, he says, is "damaging to society."

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The hand-painted wall that once greeted customers at KC Pinoy still urges Kansas Citians to eat, even though the West Bottoms restaurant is now closed.

Danielle Lehman tried Filipino food for the first time ever at KC Pinoy. More recently, she watched people carry all the furniture out of the restaurant's space, leaving it empty except words still painted on the wall: “Kumain Ka Na?” (both a question — have you eaten? — and a greeting) and "Manyaman" (a proclamation of deliciousness).

For Lehman, this closure — like so many others — is a gateway to understanding that's not there any more.

Right now, lots of restaurants still exist in Kansas City. Plenty keep opening, too (understanding that is a project for another time). But it's safe to assume, from here on out, that any restaurant could close any day. Especially with patios closed, case numbers climbing, restrictions tightening and no sign of relief from Washington.

One of the places going dark for the winter is Julep, a Westport restaurant and whiskey bar run by Keely Edgington Williams. The Ozark native says Kansas City's restaurant community has made her feel she has a real home here. Between now and January 1, when it closes indefinitely, the bar is hosting Sippin' Santa, like it does every year. It's a national franchise of pop-ups the business buys into and it's always profitable. Williams goes all out on the decorating every year, and this year is no different in that sense.

What's different is that it's all for one table. Yes, you read that correctly. Julep is opening an elaborate theme bar with seasonal drink specials to seat one table at a time by reservation only, with service provided by the remaining staff of two.

"Maybe I just needed to decorate," Williams acknowledges. "I really needed to be active in the space and to see it transform. It looks so happy and cheery and warm. We really went for it."

Williams says that although Julep is hanging on by a thread, the business is in a better place than most. "We got PPP money. I took out an economic injury, disaster loan or whatever. Unfortunately all that money is gone. I actually had a really great last year. But now that money is gone."

Whatever Julep makes from Sippin' Santa this month will essentially pay the cost of keeping a sign on the door until spring.

"I just want to be able to survive all this, open the doors all the way up and see people celebrating," Williams says. "That's what I miss. There's just so little to celebrate right now. I can't wait to see that again. I hope I get to see it at Julep."

But she expresses her hopes with a sad shrug. And her sadness, even as a business owner with a personal stake in the outcome, is about more than the bar she's put so much into over the years.

What Williams really fears is what I fear — that by the time we can finally go out to celebrate and be a community, there won't be anywhere left to go.

Correction: A previous version of this story mistakenly listed Thou Mayest among establishments that had closed; only one location of the coffee shop (the East Crossroads location) has shut its doors. We apologize for the error.

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