FIVE-BUCK LUNCH

Meatball Dunk at the City Diner is a satisfying lunch

Updated: 2014-03-19T19:27:34Z

By STEVE PAUL

The Kansas City Star

Back in my youthful folk music days, I used to love hearing the great singer/guitarist Dave Van Ronk growl out an old 1930s Tin Pan Alley tune — actually, it had roots in the 19th century — called “One Meat Ball.” The song presented the tale of a “little man” who had only 15 cents for a meal. One meatball was all he could afford, and, as the waiter scolded him, “Ya gets no bread with one meatball!”

Well, now, it’s eight decades after the Great Depression, but we’re still in the shadows of our recent great recession and meatballs still can count as a value meal.

At the City Diner, in fact, you get three meatballs as well as some bread for $4.74.

Here’s why that’s a real bargain: According to a standard inflation calculator, that 15 cents from, say, 1937, is worth about $2.37 today. So at $4.74 at the City Diner, you’re getting three meatballs for the price of two Depression-era hunger stoppers.

The City Diner, at the northeast edge of the City Market area, might not be one of the greasiest of area greasy spoons, but it has served reliable and inexpensive meals since, yes, the very same 1930s of “One Meat Ball.” Owners Don and Nola Busch have run the place for 14 years.

The diner’s Meatball Dunk is just about the cheapest item on its lunch menu, except for a grilled cheese sandwich ($3.60) and sides.

The ground-beef meatballs, made from scratch, arrive in a bowl smothered with a thick and slightly sweet red sauce, the kind of sugo Paulie Walnuts (of “The Sopranos”) might refer to as gravy. On the side is a quartered and toasted, sesame-sprinkled Italian roll for dunking, as the name implies. But, given the materials at hand, you can also think of the dish as a deconstructed meatball grinder, though it’s doubtful the philosophical concept of deconstruction is frequently discussed in the diner’s black-and-white tiled interior.

On its own, the dish can be filling, but you can overdo it by ordering some fries ($2.35) or a lettuce and tomato salad ($2.75) on the side.

The diner serves a burger for $5.05, and other sandwich prices go up from there. Its huge, 12-inch pancakes are popular ($5.25), but a short stack of three smaller ones goes for $4.75, and on Tuesdays the diner offers all-you-can-eat pancakes for $4.75.

The day I downed the Meatball Dunk at the counter, there was a nearby discussion of the previous day’s miracle at the ballgame, the moment when Justin Maxwell drilled a two-out, full-count, game-winning grand slam in the bottom of the 10th inning of the Royals’ last home game of the season.

“Sometimes,” the quick-thinking kitchen man said of the dinger as he looked my way, “you get served meatballs.”

Agreed. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

The City Diner

301 Grand Blvd.

816-471-5121

TheCityDinerKansasCity.com

Hours: 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily.

Parking: Small lot and street parking

To reach Steve Paul, senior writer and arts editor, call 816-234-4762 or send email to paul@kcstar.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/sbpaul.

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