Americas car culture has always created a need for pit stops to re-fuel.
By JILL WENDHOLT SILVA
The Kansas City Star
In the early days of the nations highways, drivers pulled off into parking lots of roadside diners or drive-ins with carhops.
Today, gas station gastronomy continues to evolve. Some of these kitschy cafés are tucked into quaintly refurbished filling stations, while others have worked their way into the corners of newer convenience store models.
Perhaps the most famous gas station grub in the city is available at Oklahoma Joes original location in a Shamrock station at 47th Avenue and Mission Road, where you can fill er up with a tank of gas or a good slab of ribs.
Another well-known road warrior is Pizza 51, at 51st and Oak streets near UMKC, and Pizza 51 West in Fairway. Both locally owned pizza parlors pay homage to their former gas station roots by serving hubcap-sized, thin-crust pizzas in a garage atmosphere.
For more exotic fare, set your GPS for Papus Mediterranean Café, a popular Waldo neighborhood pit stop with a menu that includes tasty gyros and a truly stunning shawarma platter.
Next, cruise on over to the Filling Station Bar-B-Q in downtown Lees Summit. The former 1930s-era Texaco gas station was restored in the late 1990s. Outside, youll see the original pumps; inside, pig out on all the car-related memorabilia while waiting for deep-fried pickles or tasty pulled pork.
Finally, if you dont really care if youre eating in a gas station or not, head for Genessee Royale Bistro, a converted space where the shabby-chic decor and well-prepared breakfast and lunch fare do absolutely nothing to remind you of the buildings past life.
3002 W. 47th Ave.
Kansas City, Kan.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., Monday through Thursday; 11 to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; closed Sunday.
Other locations: Oklahoma Joes has storefronts in Olathe and Leawood, but the original in Kansas City, Kan., is the only gas station location. Its been a decade since Anthony Bourdain first ate at Oklahoma Joes, but one comment he made has stayed with restaurant owner Jeff Stehney: Proximity to petroleum products is rarely an impediment to a great meal.
Despite Bourdains globe-trotting culinary travels as a chef, author and TV food personality, it is abundantly clear he has never forgotten the Kansas City barbecue restaurant tucked into a working Shamrock gas station. Bourdain has since gone on to trumpet the barbecue joint in his list of 13 Places You Must Eat Before You Die for Mens Health magazine in 2009, and this spring he highlighted the restaurant in his No Reservations series that airs on the Travel Channel.
Back in the mid-1990s, Stehney was a competition pitmaster who needed a bigger kitchen so he could book more catering jobs. He lived in Westwood at the time and frequented the gas station and convenience store nearby where the owner had added a chicken franchise a few years earlier. The owner quickly decided he hated the restaurant side of the business, and Stehney jumped at the chance to rent the space.
I figured if we were going to turn our lives upside down, it would be good to be close to work, Stehney says. But a restaurant in a gas station next to a then-liquor store is also a great schtick. I felt like it was a genius location.
Though his partner at the time disagreed, Stehney persevered. The corner proved to be busy enough, but there was something else. As a middle-class white guy trying to break into the world of barbecue, he figured cooking ribs in a gas station would give him some much-needed street cred.
Today, Stehneys employees wear T-shirts declaring, My favorite restaurant is in a gas station, while long lines snake between the stores beef jerky and soft drinks.
The payoff for the wait includes such menu items as a slab of tasty ribs or the restaurants signature Carolina-style pulled pork sandwiches served with spicy slaw on top.
The Zagat Survey of Americas Top Restaurants 2011 notes the kitschy, gas station location is part of its charm. Stehney and his wife, Joy, have since opened locations in Olathe and Leawood. But there is only one gas station location.
All the locations do really well, Stehney says, but for that person who has never been to KC, you have to go to the original.
Stehney now owns the gas station and has considered removing the pumps but figures its all part of the ambiance. He hires someone to run that part of the business so he can focus on the food.
I talk gas prices in the morning but I mostly try to ignore that part of it because its not our bread and butter, he says.
Originally a Western Auto built back in the 1960s, the parts department is now a kitchen, the showroom is the dining room and the service bays (which for a time housed a liquor store) serve as a corporate office and a catering commissary.
• Fill er Up: Full slab of ribs ($20.99), Carolina pulled pork sandwich ($6.39), Z-man sandwich (brisket with provolone and onion rings on Kaiser roll, $6.79), cup of smoked chicken gumbo ($4.49).
Genessee Royale Bistro
1531 Genessee St.
Hours: 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday
Step inside Genessee Royale Bistro and youd hardly know it had a previous life as a gas station.
The walls of the dining room are painted a lovely shade of peach and a tapestry of empty old picture frames and mirrors give the interior a shabby-chic appeal.
While the dining room is a wide-open space with new garage doors; the kitchen, pantry, office and bathrooms are tucked into what would have been the original gas stations office space.
Theres a lot going on in a small space, restaurant owner Todd Schulte says. We call it efficient. Everything is at your fingertips.
Which, from a chefs perspective, is really what you need.
By coincidence, in the mid-1990s Schulte worked at Joe Ds Wine Bar (now Julian) in Brookside, another former gas station. Schulte recalls the Joe Ds floor plan was less than ideal, with the walk-in cooler located, rather inconveniently, outside.
When a developer introduced Schulte to a vacant West Bottoms gas station, he already knew what kind of renovation would be required.
The gas pumps were long gone, but he needed to extract the underground gas tanks and pull out the hydraulics for the car lifts in the service bays. He also had to run soil tests to prove there was no environmental contamination. And the bistros much-corroded sheet metal exterior needed restoration and a new coat of paint.
I feel great about the reuse of it, Schulte says. Its a great little building that just needed a breath of fresh air.
But unlike many other gas station restaurants, Schulte steers clear of marketing his bistro with all the kitsch of a former roadside oasis. The breakfast and lunch dishes are carefully crafted, often from local ingredients, such as the Bichelmeyers butchers grind burger. Its served on a Wolfermans muffin both are iconic hometown businesses.
For us and what were doing (with the food), I dont really play up on it. We dont really push the issue, Schulte says. But if thats what youre into, by all means, enjoy.
And occasionally a random customer brings in an antique oil can, which is always graciously accepted.
• Fill er Up: Bichelmeyers butchers grind burger served on a Wolfermans muffin ($8), open-faced hanger steak sandwich with onion-parsley tapenade ($12), Genessee cobb salad ($11). Unlike most gas stations that stick with wine coolers and beer, this bistro serves up some well-made cocktails, including the Dark and Stormy ($8), Bloody Mary ($7) and Campari and grapefruit ($7).
Filling Station Bar-B-Q Restaurant
333 SE Douglas St.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday and Monday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Doubtful many customers remember the good ol days, when gas was a mere 23 cents a gallon. If you have to see a number like that to believe it, check out the original antique Sky Chief pump outside the Wilcox Building at the corner of Douglas and Fourth streets in downtown Lees Summit.
The stucco-and-brick building was built in 1935 to serve as a Wilcox service station. It was home to a flower shop before the space was restored in 1998 to become the Filling Station Bar-B-Q Restaurant (unrelated to the Filling Station coffee shop in midtown Kansas City). According to a metal plaque outside the front door, the barbecue-themed pit stop is a great example of a modern adaptive reuse of a historic building.
Today, the interior of this former Texaco station is comfortable and nostalgic, with vintage dining tables, vinyl padded stools and spearmint walls covered in metal gas station advertisements and other car-related memorabilia.
We have a lot of customers who find their old Texaco stuff and give it to us, says restaurant owner Heather ODell.
ODell, 26, started working at the restaurant when she was 15 years old. She recently purchased the business from her mother, adding Sunday hours and several menu items.
The aroma of hickory smoke filled the diner on a recent summer afternoon as lunch customers stood in front of the cash register to place their order. Diners have the option of sitting inside or outside on the patio.
• Fill er Up: Unusual menu items include a fried pickle appetizer ($3.95), smoked Angus burger ($6.50), smoked catfish ($6.50), rib tip sandwich ($6.50), Scimecas mild Italian sausage ($5.75 and $7.25) and turkey legs ($6). Sweets include such gas station classics as the Moon Pie, which found its place into Southern folklore in the 1930s when it became known as the working mans lunch when downed with an RC Cola. Youll also find Cherry Mashes, a candy invented in St. Joseph.
Papus Mediterranean Cafe
604 W. 75th St. (inside a Shell station)
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Khalid Sirhandi has owned the Shell gas station at 75th Street in Waldo since 2000. An avid cook, he always dreamed of owning a café. So when the economy tanked, Sirhandi and his 32-year-old nephew Shuja Sirhindi started talking about ripping out a drink cooler and a shelf of groceries to make way for a to-go food operation.
Deciding what type of cuisine they wanted to serve proved tricky. Initially they considered adding a name-brand sandwich or pizza franchise. Then they considered focusing on their native Pakistani cuisine. After extensive customer research, they landed on a Mediterranean-themed restaurant because it was more mainstream, Sirhindi says.
Customers might detect a hint of curry in the thinly sliced chicken shawarma because the meat is marinated using a touch of Indian spices, which gives it a distinct flavor.
Business has been brisk, but Sirhindi continues to tweak the concept. For instance, instead of carrying out their orders as expected, customers said they wanted to sit down to eat their food. So tables were added inside the gas station, each with a vase of real flowers, as well as patio seating around back.
We didnt know people would like to sit in a gas station, says Sirhindi, who manages the gas station and restaurant by day for his uncle and works for a Sprint contractor by night.
Sirhindi also discovered that customers enjoyed watching their food being prepared. He created an open kitchen with a bar-level countertop so customers can stand and watch as a cook shaves gyro meat off a cylinder of spiced beef revolving vertically on a stainless steel spit and tucks it into warm pita bread. Garnishes include red onion, lettuce, tomato and a cucumber and yogurt tzatziki sauce.
Customers pay a cashier who sits in a glassed-in box at the entrance of the store. Its one-stop shopping for those who fill their tank, buy a lottery ticket and order some falafel to go. And, of course, a convenience stores soft drink selection is rivaled by few actual restaurants.
We just wanted something a little bit unique, Sirhindi says. I dont know if we would have succeeded if we were in a different neighborhood. I think Waldo is really unique.
Sirhindi continues to work on signs so people who live outside the neighborhood will know Papus resides inside.
• Fill er Up: Chicken shawarma or gyro platter ($7.49), includes a tabbouleh salad, hummus and warm pita; baba ghanoush sandwich ($4.99), appetizer sampler (pick 3) baba ghanoush, hummus, falafel or dolmas and warm pita ($6.99)
Pizza 51 West
5938 Mission Road
West hours: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Lunch starts at 11 a.m. Breakfast pizzas available only at West location.
Other location: Pizza 51, 5060 Oak St. in Brookside
When Jason Pryor lived in Atlanta, he used to eat at a pizza joint in an old gas station near Georgia Institute of Technology.
Back in Kansas City and ready to open his first pizza restaurant, Pryor bought a former Conoco station at 51st and Oak streets, across from the University of Missouri-Kansas City campus, and opened Pizza 51 in 2004. The space had character and worked so well that when Pryor got ready to expand last year he started scouting other former gas stations. Pryor settled on a former Sinclair station on Mission Road in Fairway, opening Pizza 51 West last fall with his wife and partner, Shannon.
If you really think about it, gas stations, no matter how old, were placed on busy intersections, he says, and precisely why these buildings are often razed to make way for the next super-sized QuickTrip or 7-Eleven. The draw is the character of the building and the story that was.
Pizza 51 West has plenty of curb appeal, starting with the fire-engine red vintage 1920s gas pump he bought at an auction in Higginsville, Mo. The pump serves as a sculptural focal point for the distinctive low-slung building with three service-bay doors facing east.
Coincidentally, the original 51st Street location had three service bay doors facing east. So a second gas station location provided consistency of concept.
It was a great opportunity to be consistent with the space, as well as the food, Pryor says.
Of course, there are challenges to adaptive reuse. For instance, the hydraulics for the service bays usually are buried 3 feet deep, requiring the concrete to be re-poured.
In both situations the spaces had to completely gutted, says Pryor, who hired local architect Lon Booher to do the work. Luckily, gas station décor heavy on license plates, hubcaps, tin signs and postcards keeps some of the costs down for a mom-and-pop shop by providing an ambiance of nostalgia for older customers and entertainment for younger customers.
Dining out is more than just a meal, Pryor says. Nowadays, you have to offer an experience.
Customers to both restaurants can order thin crust pizzas with names like the Highway Special, then sit indoors close to the pizza-tossing action or outdoors on the patio. I dined with four teenagers in tow so I ordered two large pizzas to fill them up, but the truth is the largest pizza (26 inches) is way bigger than most hubcaps and might not even fit into some compact cars. We werent even able to make a dent in two 18-inch pizzas, so there was plenty to take home.
• Fill er Up: The Highway Special (pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, green peppers, black olives, $5.99 per slice to $39.99 for 26-inch pie) or Take the High Road (create your own pizza), skillet breakfast pizzas (an 8-inch pie with eggs, cheese and your choice of toppings), sandwiches, wraps and calzones.
More pit stop options
Here are a few more gas station restaurant incarnations we found along the way. If you know of others we missed that are worth a pit stop, send your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Roasterie Café, 6223 Brookside Blvd.: Local coffee baron Danny ONeill opened a cozy neighborhood coffee house in a former Amoco station.
• Julian, 6227 Brookside Plaza: James Beard award-winning chef Celina Tio completely remodeled Joe Ds, a funky yet cozy Brookside dining fixture. Years ago, the little building had flown the Skelly and Texaco flags.
• Hi Hat Coffee, 5012 State Line Road: An elegant but tiny Tudor revival building, the space has long been a beloved neighborhood coffee shop with past lives as a barbershop and a hair and nail salon. But the space also was a Phillips 66 in the 1930s.
• Filling Station, 2980 McGee Trafficway: This former gas station turned coffee garage in the Union Hill neighborhood serves espresso drinks, fresh juices, breakfast, lunch and snacks to a hip and trendy crowd.
• Basil Leaf Café, 3300 W. Sixth St., Lawrence: Tucked into a Phillips 66 station, the café features a menu offering upscale Italian, including Shrimp Fettuccine in Lobster Sauce and Guinness Risotto.