By Charles Ferruzza
In September of 1967, I turned ten years old on the same day that the popular CBS TV game show, What’s My Line? signed off the air. I could have cared less about What’s My Line? It was one of those “square” TV shows for grown-ups; I had never watched it.
I was waiting, breathlessly, for the new Beatles LP, “Magical Mystery Tour” to be released in two months.
That’s how the world was changing at the tail end of the 1960s. Goodbye Arlene Francis, hello “Strawberry Fields Forever.”
And in the hamlet of Mission, Kansas – not far from Shawnee Mission North High School (which had simply been Shawnee Mission High School from 1922 to 1958) – a franchise restaurant for the Colorado-based Village Inn restaurant chain opened in 1967.
Over the next 40 years, this tidy diner, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, has become something of a fixture on Johnson Drive. The decor and menu still reflect the sensibility of the Beatles era: bright lights, leatherette booths and food that really sticks to your ribs. In the ‘60s, no one gave a damn about cholesterol, saturated fats and blood pressure. If you wanted a breakfast platter of chicken-fried steak smothered in country gravy with two eggs and a side order of strawberry pancakes topped with whipped cream…you ordered it, damn it. And if you wanted a post-breakfast menthol cigarette with a second cup of coffee, you lit one up at your table without an inkling of regret.
Cigarette smoking is no longer permitted at the Village Inn in Mission (5800 Broadmoor; 913-236-7088), but over-eating is still socially acceptable.
One of the more familiar faces on the Village Inn staff is Derek, the congenial host-cashier who swings those laminated menus around like a stack of flapjacks. Derek told me he’s seen a couple of interior renovations in the 19 years that he’s worked for this restaurant. I’ve seen at least one or two more myself in the 30 years that I’ve been dining at the venue. And the amazing thing is that no matter how many attempts are made to “modernize” the dining room’s interior, it always still looks as if you’ve walked into 1967.
During a recent breakfast, where I considered ordering the seasonal “pumpkin supreme pancakes” – they’ll stay on the menu through Christmas, I was told – I overheard a quartet of 60-something regulars discussing next week’s elections with intensity. “Sometimes I worry that we’re coming to the end of days,” said one man.
I wanted to tell him that my late father used those exact same words to describe the Nixon-Humphrey election of 1968.
Instead of the pumpkin pancakes (“Drizzled with scrumptious caramel pecan and pumpkin-spiced supreme cream sauces”), I decided on a post-breakfast slice of pumpkin pie. Less saucy, less complicated.
“None of our pies are actually made here,” explained my server. “They’re made at one of our subsidiary companies, but we add the important accessories here in our kitchen.”
“Yes,” she said. “You know, like whipped cream.”
The Village Inn serves about two dozen kinds of pie by the slice daily. The list changes according to the season.
“We’re not doing any fresh strawberry pie,” the waitress said, “until next year.”
Would you have it any other way?
Note: I’ll be participating in the 30/30 Vision program – discussing the changes in Kansas City restaurants over the last 30 years – this coming Monday, November 7 at 10 a.m. on KCUR-FM’s Central Standard program with host Gina Kauffman. Mission’s Village Inn restaurant will surely be discussed: it’s outlasted many of its rivals over the last four decades.
Longtime Kansas City food writer Charles Ferruzza’s weekly column runs on Shawnee Mission Post and Blue Valley Post each Friday.