The real Leona Yarbrough — the home-style cook who took a job at a Fairway restaurant called Anne Peterson’s in 1950 and bought out her boss 16 years later — is still alive. But by the end of this month, her namesake dining establishment, which moved out to larger quarters (in a building that once housed a Red Lobster restaurant) in Shawnee in 1998, will fade into history.
Yes, on December 30, Leona’s grandson Michael will close the business that Leona and her late son Ron ran for more than fifty years. For Kansas City diners, it will be a bittersweet ending to a venerable restaurant tradition. Leona Yarbrough’s wasn’t haute cuisine by any stretch of the imagination, but it did serve the solid fare that was a staple of diners, cafes and luncheonettes for most of the 20th century. And I seriously doubt that any other restaurant in town will ever serve Leona’s signature dishes — like baked chicken rolled in Cheez-Its — once the doors close for good.
Because my young friend Emily had never experienced the glory that was Yarbrough’s, I took her and another friend, Carol Ann, for a farewell luncheon on Monday. The restaurant wasn’t very full, but we had to wait more than ten minutes to be seated at one of the vinyl-sheathed tables in the main dining room, which was gaily decorated for Christmas. I noticed one change immediately: there was no longer a guest pad and pencil on the table. For half a century, customers had been required to fill out their own orders. That policy ended about eight months ago, according to our server, Tina. Emily seemed amazed by such an antique custom: "Was there ever a time you couldn’t read a customer’s handwriting?" she asked.
"Only once in 12 years," said Tina.
Once the restaurant officially closes, Tina told us, she’ll kick off her catering and delivery business, preparing the same kind of home-style fare that Leona Yarbrough’s has been famous for.
"I started out as a cook," she said, "just like Leona did." She handed us each one of her business cards: Catering & Delivery. Tina Myers. President and CEO. 913-248-0447.
And she took our lunch order: a tuna melt — one of the daily specials — for Emily, fried catfish for Carol Ann and meatloaf with Spanish sauce for me. And we all ordered dessert, of course. The kitchen crew still bakes pies and cakes and bread pudding and those tiny, sugary cinnamon rolls from scratch every day. (It’s not too late to order them for the holidays, along with Waldorf salad, fried or roast turkey, gravy and whipped potatoes; call 913-248-0500).
They don’t offer prune whip as a dessert these days, although it was a staple of the dessert list 20 years ago. It’s not as sweet as Ex-Lax, but it’s just as potent.