Brown and Loe is an upscale bistro in the heart of the River Market, with a large, open interior with checkered black-and-white floors. They carry high-dollar wines and cocktails, but something on the non-alcoholic side of the menu jumps out: their phosphates.
Before I was assigned to this story, I had absolutely no idea what a phosphate was. Josh Eaton, assistant general manager at Brown and Loe, explained it me.
“It’s kind of an old fashioned drug-store drink you’d have gotten in the ‘50s, maybe at a dime store like Woolworth’s or Richardson’s or at a drug store like an old-fashioned soda fountain.”
It turns out, Brown and Loe is among only a few places in Kansas City where you can get a phosphate of any kind these days. They used to be available at drug stores throughout town.
Chocolate phospates were part of a new wave of "soft drinks" that come about in the early 20th century.
Andrea Broomfield, professor of English at Johnson County Community College, says that one of the reasons for the popularity of soft drinks is because of the move from hard drinks like alcohol. Soft drinks were considered healthy, she says, because they didn't get you drunk.
That's why soda fountains were often located in drug stores.
"If you go back to the 1880s and even earlier than that, there was a huge push to introduce a kind of mineral water to the drug store because mineral waters were thought to be healthy," Broomfield says. "There was a sense that, not only could you go to the drug store and get a healthy treat, but you would have the person in charge of the drug store who knew how to mix the chemicals."
Phosphates can be made with many kinds of flavors and syrups; at Brown and Loe, the most popular kind is the chocolate phosphate. At first glance, it seems similar to a drink like a Yoohoo. Eaton says that’s not quite the case.
“I would say it’s sort of like a chocolate milkshake, except for that it has soda and it has that tangy-ness to it. So really, it’s sort of rich but refreshing at the same time.”
The recipe for Brown and Loe's phosphates is strikingly similar to the ones used in the 1950’s, according to Eaton. He just uses just seltzer water from a can, instead of a spigot.
To make the drink, Eaton starts with two ounces of a particular kind of chocolate syrup, Fox’s U-Bet Chocolate Syrup. He then adds an ounce of half and half.
“Then four dashes of the acid phosphate, which – again, talking about this being like salt – if you think about chocolate with sea salt on it, which we like, you can kind of see how this would work together.”
Eaton adds some ice, shakes it, and strains the mixture over more ice, while adding some club soda.
“The process is very simple. I think the key is just the nice ingredients that do set it apart,” says Kate McLaughlin, co-owner of Brown and Loe. “We wanted to offer something that may be familiar to others, while something new and exciting for somebody that’s never heard of it.”
It certainly tastes like a relative of a chocolate milkshake; it’s sweet, but not quite in the way a milkshake would be. It’s like if you replaced most of the dairy in a milkshake, so it’s not so rich, and added a carbonated bite to it. It’s lighter than a milkshake, and it’s delicious.
“What the phosphate would have that those don’t, is that sour taste that gives it a bit of an edge in your mouth, a crispness ... a little acidic kind of burn, not offensive at all. Just gives it character,” says long-time bartender Harry Murphy.
Murphy owns Brown and Loe with his daughter Kate – it’s his latest venture after Harry’s Country Club, also in the River Market. His relationship with chocolate phosphates goes way back.
“To some extent, the phosphate is a revival of something that used to be pretty common. Meaning everything didn’t taste the same ... it has to do with authenticity, and feeling like somebody’s really working to produce this.”
Murphy says they get all kinds of reactions to having phosphates on the menu.
“We get people who say, ‘I don’t get it. It tastes the same to me as any soda pop or Kool-Aid.’ Well they’re wrong I think, they may not have the best palate in the world. But neither do I. A phosphate can still make its mark when I drink it.”
While this phosphate may not be from an old-time soda fountain, it certainly has the sweet taste of nostalgia.
“This restaurant might as well be an old drug store. It’s not a supermarket where all the corn syrup stuff is,” Murphy says. “It’s kind of fun going in and being able to go in and dip into that historic lore and have a little story with what you’re drinking.”
Trevor Hook is an intern at KCUR 89.3.