Neighborhood gathering spot gets intimate with the outside
By Rhiannon Ross
A middle-aged man in blue jeans and a white ball cap stands next to a parking sign, dragging on the last of a cigarette. Near his feet, a plastic bucket filled nearly to the brim with water, is marked with the generic word “DOG”. A roly-poly pit bull by the name of Fitzgerald waddles over to the bucket and laps up the liquid. His tongue is the shade of strawberry lipstick.
Nearby, a man in a cowboy hat and boots, with his lady friend, sun at a picnic table. A woman in dark sunglasses sits alone at a sidewalk table, sipping a Bloody Mary, its lime sunk like a green ship in a red sea. A harried mother, followed by two, rambunctious young children slurping ice cream cones, walks past us. One child is so close, I could reach out and touch his sticky hand.
I watch this Sunday afternoon street life from a sidewalk table at Fric & Frac, a funky Kansas City neighborhood tavern on the corner of 39th and Genessee. Sharing my table is Sharon Eiker, aka “Mama Diva”, a well-known local poet, visual artist, musician and performance artist.
“I’ve been eating at Fric & Frac weekly for 20 years,” she brags. “I’ve literally watched people grow old here.”
Eiker calls the tavern, with its sunset pink, brick exterior and broad, storefront windows, her neighborhood bar even though it’s located two miles from her Hyde Park home. She compares the West 39th Street corridor in the Volker Neighborhood – known as KC’s “restaurant row” – to New York City.
“New York City is a big place until I figured out it’s a series of neighborhoods with wine bars, grocery stores, laundries, and pubs,” she says. “This is one of the few places in Midtown Kansas City where everything is within walking distance. And Fric & Frac is the heart of this area. It has a personality. People working here are unique and they make you feel at home.”
Our server sports a pierced nostril and a sleeve of tattoos on her right arm, and a tattooed heart with the words “You Are Sweet” on her left bicep. An outdoor mural on the building features cartoon characters jamming to a boombox. Pop tunes from the ‘70s are piped outside via speakers. Only a window separates our table from an inside table where two men chomp burgers and swig frothy beers.
Sidewalk seating is limited to four tables and a picnic table. Several nearby restaurants on the row offer enclosed patio seating or sidewalk seating set back from the street. Yet, at Fric & Frac, no barrier separates sidewalk diners from passersby. Eiker and I embrace the European appeal of al fresco dining and the opportunity to people watch. Strollers pass us as if we are separated by an invisible wall. There’s an unspoken pact to respect mutual privacy. Occasionally, some do smile and nod “hello” but only if eye contact is made and the invisible wall is breached.
Bartender Patrick Martin says sidewalk dining is popular with diners and drinkers alike, especially when the weather is temperate.
“Outside seating has been a real asset to us,” Martin says. He adds that the sidewalk space also appeals to smokers.
But sidewalk dining isn’t for everyone. Some find the experience noisy and intrusive, physically uncomfortable without air-conditioning, and the appearance of insects annoying.
Jackson County Legislative Aide, Beth Ann Brubaker, says she needs “to be in the mood to people watch” when she chooses sidewalk dining.
“For me, that’s when I’m drinking not dining. And if I’m enjoying a nice meal, I don’t want to take the chance of getting bugs in it.”
She also prefers to eat inside during KC’s humid, summer months. “Eating outdoors is called al fresco dining. It should be fresh-feeling not steamy and stale,” she says.
Owned and operated by the Rudy Ross family since 1976 (no relation to the author), Fric & Frac is a family-friendly place that offers inexpensive pub fare. Weekday lunch specials start at $8 and daily evening specials offer deals such as two for one burgers on Mondays and chicken fried steak and a pile of mashed potatoes drowning in white gravy on Sundays. Eiker’s favorite special is Taco Saturday (three tacos for $2.95).
Eiker insists the neighborhood tavern has maintained its shabby-chic charm throughout the years, inside and outside.
“The audacious tablecloths are the only thing that’s changed in 20 years,” she says, laughing. She points to a plastic, Hawaiian-print cover adorning a table.
For a while longer, Eiker and I bask in the sun, chit-chat, and watch strangers, acquaintances, and occasional friends stroll the sidewalks leading to, and from, somewhere in the city.
Writer Rhiannon Ross collects vintage teacups and saucers. Her favorite teacup features The White Rabbit.