Thursday, February 28, 2013

Ephemeral city: Jim Lee's menu

According to the menu cover, the "Dollar Dinner" lived at Jim Lee's, 12th and Baltimore.

In 1940 a woman named Beulah Jester lives with her husband and 12-year-old son in a rooming house in a working-class neighborhood near 25th and Troost. Times are still hard and Beulah, 33 years old with an 8th grade education, holds down a job to help her hotel-chef husband pay the bills. The Jesters, whose monthly rent is $15, probably are the kind of folks for whom even a one-dollar dinner ($16.45 in today's money) would strain the budget.

But Beulah is quite familiar with "the Dollar Dinner" as a waitress at Jim Lee's restaurant downtown. Its menu promises dinner for a dollar.

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The location – 1211 Baltimore – is a prime one for a restaurant: across the street from the Orpheum Theater and the Hotel Muehlebach, close to numerous other hotels and theaters and within a block of the center of the universe – 12th and Main. (It's an easy streetcar commute from 25th and Troost.)

Before opening his downtown place, Jim Lee had gained experience as manager of a gas-station restaurant outside Platte City, the Red Crown Tavern. The Red Crown is perhaps best known as the site of a 1933 shootout between lawmen and the Clyde Barrow gang. (Lee's son, Don, later will become owner of the Savoy Grill and the Hotel Savoy, downtown KC landmarks.)

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The Jim Lee's menu is pretty extensive, offering everything from soup to cheese, from ham and eggs to spaghetti and meatballs to T-bone steaks with mushroom sauce. It's interesting to note that most of the dinner specials cost well over a dollar. There's no liquor, but restaurants often have separate menus. (For example, the liquor menu at the Southern Mansion, two blocks south on Baltimore, offers a champagne cocktail for 80 cents, the same price as liver and onions at Jim Lee's.)

And although you can probably put together a meal of, say, a goose liver sandwich, house salad and iced tea for 95 cents, the menu lists just two dinners that cost a dollar or less: a veal cutlet, salad and coffee for 90 cents or a waffle dinner for a buck.

Strictly speaking, I guess, Jim Lee's is the home of the dollar dinner.  But I wonder how often Beulah Jester hears a customer wonder aloud about its scarcity on the menu.

And I take note that Jim Lee has made it something of a portable trademark.  During his time there, the Red Crown Tavern advertised itself as "The Home of Dollar Dinners."

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