The city of Leavenworth, Kansas – population roughly 36,000 – has never been known as a culinary Mecca … but it should.
It is, after all, the location of the grand mansion once owned by 19th-century British-born restaurant entrepreneur Fred Harvey – creator of his namesake Harvey House lunch rooms, restaurants, souvenir shops, and hotels, which served rail passengers on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, the Gulf Colorado and Santa Fe Railway, the Kansas Pacific Railway, the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway, and the Terminal Railroad Association of St. Louis.
Harvey, famous for his spotlessly tidy dining venues with consistently good wholesome food and attractive, trained waitresses, was the forerunner of iconic American restaurateurs like Howard Johnson and Ray Kroc (who built the McDonald’s burger chain); if there hadn’t been a Fred Harvey, someone would have had to invent him.
Leavenworth is also home to one of the last remaining outposts of the once-celebrated NuWay sandwich shops (famous for crumbly loose meat burgers and homemade root beer) founded in Wichita in 1930; there used to be several operating in the Kansas City metro. And for a final note of nostalgic noshery, there’s still the 87-year-old Homer’s Drive-In (formerly a root beer stand with male carhops wearing long-sleeved shirts and ties) at 1320 S. Fourth St. The carhops are long gone and so is most of the “drive in” business (although the staff will run out the front door with your call-in order), but the cozy diner still serves burgers, homemade chili, Frito pie, shrimp baskets, and deluxe plate dinners: fish, ham, beef brisket, turkey, country-fried steak, and catfish for $8.49
In Leavenworth, there’s only one restaurant that has serious vintage credit – and at least one ghost! – The Depot, tucked inside the 1887 Romanesque Revival rail depot at 781 Shawnee St. Formerly the passenger depot for the Leavenworth, Northern and Southern rail line, the handsomely appointed dark pink sandstone building originally offered separate waiting areas for male and female travelers, a station manager’s office, rest rooms and wood-burning fireplaces.
Opened in 2015 by Mike and Mary Nachbar, The Depot was a dramatic facility for a fast-growing small town and even after the space no longer operated as a train depot and the venue stood empty, local entrepreneurs bought the historic building as a future asset for the town. The building, with its shiny wooden floors and amber glass mullioned windows, deserved to be saved. But for what?
Leavenworth was anything but a genteel hamlet when the train station initially opened; there were already 200 saloons within the city limits.
Over a century later, there are still a fair number of drinking establishments in town, but the most troublesome patron seems to be the Depot’s resident ghost that employees call “Kathleen” who has been known to move things in the building (hiding neatly arranged tools is a particular favorite of hers) and occasionally pull one of the waitresses ponytail.
“Kathleen” has a long history of playing tricks, including locking a waitress inside of a bathroom stall – and laughing. “We don’t know where the name Kathleen came from,” one of the veteran waitresses told me. “But someone came up with it and it stuck.”
There have been several food service establishments inside the old depot over the last three decades, including both a barbeque and Mexican restaurants, but the current incarnation of the facility serves old-fashioned home cooking, including rib-sticking breakfasts – the “Super Chief” features chicken-fried steak with gravy, two eggs any style, hash browns and toast – all served on oversized platters offered each day from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The Depot gets very good reviews for its “stick-to-your-ribs” dishes and enjoys loyal, repeat customers. It’s gotten excellent ratings on tripadvisor and the Nachbars tout their resident chef every chance they get.
The serving staff is friendly and gracious at the Depot. The resident ghost, “Kathleen,’ is mischievous, but good-natured.
But definitely not a Harvey Girl candidate.
Words and photos | Charles Ferruzza