Most of us likely missed it when it happened recently — Dec. 5th marked the 80th anniversary of the end of prohibition. Here in Kansas City, it also marked the 80th anniversary of arguably the city’s most famous restaurant — Stroud’s.
They had a special toast at the restaurant’s Fairway location to celebrate the repeal of prohibition, at 4:32 pm, the exact time the law became history. Stroud’s opened right after prohibition ended and has been serving cold beer and hot fried chicken ever since — though, truth be told, chicken didn’t become a staple of the restaurant until 1942 when beef and pork were rationed during World War II.
It’s just one of a million stories from this iconic Kansas City restaurant.
“Yogi Berra used to manage the Yankees, and before that, of course, he was a great ball player. Well, every time he was in town, he used to bring in his whole entourage,” said owner Mike Donegan. “Sometimes there would be four or five Hall of Famers eating here.”
Donegan didn’t own Stroud’s back then. He bought the restaurant in 1977 when Stroud’s was already 44 years old.
It’s kind of like adopting someone’s dad, but Donegan’s made sure to respect the tradition and continue the restaurant’s history of excellence. I had the chance to dine at Stroud’s Oak Ridge Manor in the Northland recently, sampling the food and chatting a bit with Donegan.
“I was a bartender at Kelly’s when I bought Stroud’s,” Donegan said. “I was only 27 year old. It took me five or six years for vendors to take me seriously.”
I asked him if he felt any pressure taking over a legend like Stroud’s.
“No, I didn’t know any better. I just was having fun, making money and having fun,” Donegan said.
Donegan also made some memories through the years, like when Liz Taylor called to ask for the famous Stroud’s T-shirt, reading “We choke our own chickens,” for her seventh husband, Larry Fortensky. A few weeks later, the couple was on the cover of the tabloid magazine Star. And, guest what? Fortensky’s wearing his Stroud’s T-shirt.
Then there was the time when Rush Limbaugh came to town and hosted a group of his Kansas City friends. Limbaugh was a regular at Stroud’s during his tenure here in the 70’s and early 80’s. On this visit, just last summer, Limbaugh left the server a $1,000 tip.
Dick Howser did his post-game radio interview in Donegan’s office after the Royals won the World Series in 1985, and on and on.
As far as awards, there are too many to count, but consider this — Stroud’s is the only Kansas City recipient of a James Beard Foundation award. There have been chefs who’ve won the prize, considered the Oscar of the restaurant industry, but no other restaurant.
Donegan loves the famous folks, and all the attention and accolades, but it’s the day in and day out customers who really make him smile.
“Grandkids of regular customers, great grandkids come in,” said Donegan. “We’ve even had a situation where a waitress has both her daughters working at the restaurant.”
Then, there’s that pan-fried chicken, served family-style with green beans, those amazing cinnamon rolls, your potato of choice, and soup or salad-the chicken cooked to perfection every time.
When someone asks him about adding something healthy to the menu, Donegan simply says, “Don’t worry, we fry out all the calories.”
Donegan’s been the “face” of Stroud’s since buying the restaurant, and he still works the “wait list” every night, yelling out the names to be seated while joking with diners,
So, how does this roadhouse continue to do it for 80-years and counting?
“No changes. That’s our secret,” said Mike Donegan.
Of course, there will be changes. Donegan, while nowhere near ready to hang up his frying pan, is also no spring chicken.
He’s sold part of the Fairway Stroud’s to the KC Hopps Restaurant group, so its ownership future is secure. But, in regards to Oak Ridge Manor, Donegan says he doesn’t know what’s going to happen.
When I asked if he had someone in mind, a long-time employee perhaps, Donegan simply shrugged his shoulders and walked away.
So, I didn’t get an answer, but I didn’t get some terrific chicken, a very nice filet mignon and some really good home-made chicken noodle soup. Oh, and a family meal to remember.
Dave Eckert is the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS-TV and Wealth TV for 12 seasons, or nearly 300 half-hour episodes produced on six continents. Eckert is also an avid wine collector and aficionado, having amassed a personal wine cellar of some 2,000 bottles.