Happy Gills Cafe & Hangout

Experiencing the simple joy of ‘Kitchen sitting’

Words: Rhiannon Ross

From the solo perch of the high chair as a youngin, we grow and descend to the lowlands of the communal kitchen table. Sounds play on the memory during that transition, including the scrape of kitchen chair legs scooching across a linoleum or hardwood floor.

The first kitchen table of my memory was oblong, topped with silvery Formica, and boasted six metal legs. Consuming the center of the room in my parent’s flamingo pink kitchen, it was surrounded by six turquoise vinyl chairs. Here, I ate breakfasts of oatmeal and brown sugar or buttermilk biscuits and gravy. Here, I also would beg my mother for a bite of her buttered toast with dollops of marmalade and a sip of her sugary, hot tea. When my father arrived home, the family – all six of us – would share our day’s activities while gathered around this table. We were a family of “kitchen sitters”.

Pleasant thoughts of being a kitchen sitter came to me when I entered Happy Gillis Café & Hangout in the Columbus Park neighborhood. It was deja vu when I spied five vintage kitchen tables – some wooden, others laminated with metal legs – flanked with vinyl or wrought iron patio chairs. Kitschy salt-and-pepper shakers serve as centerpieces. Plaster and brick walls are painted pistachio, floorboards are varnished wood, and pipes are exposed overhead. Cacti sun in window boxes. One wall showcases 50 mismatched plates, saucers and platters, from vintage to crafted to a child’s whimsical drawing. A bar with stools offers additional seating for four and a coveted, southern window view. In warmer weather, a sidewalk patio allows diners to sit in front of the building’s red brick exterior with its vintage Coca Cola signage.

In such a place, one expects to find comfort foods and lots of hot coffee. Happy Gillis, which serves breakfast and lunch, doesn’t disappoint. The menu, printed on white-framed blackboards, lists old-time favorites and trendier entrees, many using local sources. Choices include traditional biscuits and Broadway Butcher sausage gravy (a whole order will feed two unless you’re starving); breakfast burrito using Local Pig chorizo; grits and red eye gravy using local heirloom grits and Ozark country ham shank; lunch specials such as bacondate melt and other tasty accoutrements on farm bread, and the “Line Cook’s Lunch” of pork terrine, chicken liver mousse, frisee, mustard and cornichons on ciabatta.

And coffee, from the Broadway Roasting Co., is available all day. For $2.50 plus tax, you can drink as much as your bladder will hold and, upon request, you can grab a complimentary to-go cup. Local potter Paul Mallory designed the stack of mugs that bear the café’s name. Libations include beer from Boulevard Brewing Company, Mimosas, and Bloody Marys.

Owners are chef Josh Eans and his wife, Abbey-Jo, who live with their three children in the upstairs quarters above the café, located just east of the City Market. (The couple also run the Ramen Shop in the former garage attached to the café.) This historic northeast neighborhood is home to Kansas City’s first Italian immigrants, and now also home to Vietnamese, Bhutanese, Burmese and Somalis. It features traditional Italianate homes with wrought iron balconies intermixed with newer split-level homes and apartments. This is a neighborhood proud of its heritage.

A sense of yesteryear permeates Happy Gillis like the quiet of morning fog that sometimes rises from the Missouri River to the south. The only thing missing in this cozy café is a screen door where intimate conversations can filter out into the surrounding environs from kitchen sitters gathered around its tables.^

Rhiannon Ross “kitchen sits” at a vintage drop-leaf table where she sips Constant Comment Tea and eats buttered toast slathered in