By Charles Ferruzza
The combination of retail and dining isn’t new. It has simply changed a great deal over the last century.
There may be streetcars rolling through downtown Kansas City again, but the big department stores – Emery Bird Thayer, the John Taylor store, the Jones Store – aren’t coming back. And the restaurants that defined them, tea rooms and genteel cafes, are long forgotten.
But one Prairie Village restaurant continues to keep the tradition of the luncheonette: a tasteful place for shoppers to have a light meal before moving on to the next store.
There’s been some kind of dining establishment inside the Mission Road Antique Mall at 4101 West 83rd Street since the sprawling collection of vintage dealers opened more than two decades ago. The best-known has probably been the Bloomsbury Bistro, a lunch-only dining room operated for over a decade by chef Cari Jo Cavalcante.
When Cavalcante moved out of the city, the space was leased to Judith Dobson, the successful operator of two venues in McPherson, Kansas – population roughly 13,000 – where she and her late husband John had opened the Courtyard on Main and the adjoining Milan Wine Bar.
Those two operations are currently “on hiatus,” says Dobson, while she is living in Johnson County and making a go of the 55-seat dining room she calls the Courtyard Café; it opened in May and serves a much smaller menu than the McPherson restaurant, which served as many as 58 dishes.
The Courtyard Café, open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, focuses on the traditional “ladies who lunch” menu: eight salads and as many sandwiches and wraps. It’s daintier dining than most of her competition in Corinth Square – but not too fussy – and Dobson insists that she has an unexpectedly strong male clientele too.
There were a number of male diners when I dined there, mostly accompanying their wives and daughters. And, from a cursory glance at their lunch choices, most of the men had chosen the same offering – a turkey pesto panini on house-made bread. I ordered the same sandwich myself and it’s excellent, prepared with this restaurant’s yeasty homemade bread.
Dobson and her staff start baking the bread, which they start preparing the night before, every morning at 6 a.m. and the intoxicating aroma wafts through the two-story mall (the former Herbert Woolf stables) until her daughter Kyndra opens the dining room for business promptly at 11 a.m. The restaurant does accept reservations.
In true tea room fashion, the Courtyard Café currently serves lemonade, iced tea and soda, but Dobson has applied for a liquor license and plans to serve wine and beer during the holiday season, when she’ll expand her hours for Saturday evening wine-and-cheese plates.
Dobson took a gamble on the Mission Road Antique Mall, since the facility is expected to close in two years. But she says she wanted to begin building her brand in the metro and the mall gave her the opportunity to start small, as she did in McPherson.
“We knew the mall was closing at some point,” Dobson says, “so we’re sort of feeling our way here. Our specialty in McPherson was hosting hors d’oeuvres parties.”
Each of the tables in the room is cloaked in white linen and tastefully set – very much like the genteel tea room in my home town’s carriage trade department store, back when such a thing still existed – and the servers wear black…with white pearls.
Tea breads, scones and seasonal soups (a recent fresh corn and potato chowder was extraordinarily delicious) are offered fresh daily and Judith Dobson is back in the kitchen, doing the cooking and baking herself.
As the weather gets colder, Dobson plans to introduce a quiche and a hearty boeuf bourguignon to the menu.
Shopping at the antique mall is not required for dining in the Courtyard Café – but highly encouraged.
Longtime Kansas City food writer Charles Ferruzza’s weekly column for the Shawnee Mission Post and Blue Valley Post runs each Friday.