Why Do Kansas Citians Miss Antoine's on de Boulevard So Much? Read on to Find Out
Antoine's on the Boulevard (Tony’s Tavern) 1944-1992
423 Southwest Boulevard, KC MO
Kansas City people tend to be unpretentious--and quick to call out those who put on airs. I remember Lee Laramore, a friend of my dad’s who I adored for his wit and merciless puncturing of swells. Lee was a regular at Tony’s Tavern (by day) and Antoine’s on the Boulevard (by night), and no wonder Lee felt at home there. No one disliked pretense more than he did, except the tavern owners, Tony DiBenedetto Sr. and Tony DiBenedetto Jr. This restaurant’s “concept” (long before that word became industry jargon) was to downplay decorum and propriety and play up amusement and fun.
Located on Southwest Boulevard in a modest two-story brick building almost under the I-35 overpass, Antoine’s/Tony’s was surrounded by light industry. Tony and Vita DiBenedetto started the business in 1944 as Tony’s Tavern, a working person’s bar.
For decades, Tony’s did brisk business selling beer (originally a nickel) and hamburgers (originally fifteen cents), and initially DiBenedetto Jr. continued his father’s traditions. But as he explained to Kansas City Star reporter Joseph Popper, by the mid-1970s “the Boulevard was dying, and I was getting tired of entertaining the same six guys every night.” Change was in order.
DiBenedetto gave the tavern a split personality. During the day, Tony’s Tavern was much like DiBenedetto Sr. had kept it, serving beer and sandwiches. But at night, the restaurant’s new name reflected DiBenedetto’s self-deprecating wit. “Antoine’s on the Boulevard” (often pronounced “an de Boulevard”) comically alluded to the elegant, extremely posh Antoine’s in New Orleans. Steven E. Bunn personally introduced Tony and Virginia (Tony’s wife) to the owners of Antoine’s in New Orleans, and they went on to “become fast friends,” Bunn recalled in a Things and Places We Loved about Kansas City Facebook post. But instead of Oysters Rockefeller, DiBenedetto dealt in boiled shrimp--boatloads of it--inspired by Jo Stafford’s song, “The Shrimp Boats Are A-Coming.”
Thanks to DiBenedetto’s innovations and new vibe, his restaurant became so popular that reservations for Friday and Saturday night had to be made two weeks in advance. Antoine’s/Tony’s reminded Kansas City Star food editor Art Siemering of Popeye the Sailor: “I yam what I yam and that’s all that I yam.”
Antoine’s/Tony’s did not have the physical space to be anything more than it was. With his match-box sized kitchen, DiBenedetto had no illusions about what he could create. Shrimp demanded nothing more than a seasoned boil, required no prep, and cooked in seconds. Aside from the shrimp, the menu offered a handful of dinner options: broiled sirloin, chicken-fried steak, shish kebab, prime rib, spaghetti and meatballs, ravioli, and veal parmesan.
But as Siemering was right to point out, Popeye’s quip was profound, given the power of that tiny word “all,” a word that signified DiBenedetto’s huge personality and boundless love of people. Take the shrimp’s arrival to the table. Sometimes it came spilling out of a plastic pumpkin. Sometimes, it sailed in on toy boats. When DiBenedetto saw Tonka dump trucks on sale at K-Mart, he bought the fleet for his shrimp. When DiBenedetto served a large group, the shrimp arrived in a child’s red wagon.
Just about every type of person appreciated DiBenedetto’s restaurant, but for those not in the know or expecting something “posh,” DiBenedetto turned their skepticism or judgment into new traditions and innovations. Consider the baseball caps that DiBenedetto always wore and that lined the walls. As he related the story to Popper, the tradition started when “years ago, a customer told me he thought real chefs wore hats.” Piqued, DiBenedetto quickly put on his ball cap. “Make you happy?” he asked. From then on DiBenedetto wore a cap so everyone knew he was a “chef,” and loving his humor, patrons started to bring him all manner of ball caps.
“Tony’s Fireball” was likewise the result of pretense, this time at the lux Top of the Crown where Tony and Virginia dined one Sunday night in 1980. A waiter confused the couple’s drink order and returned, as DiBenedetto related it to Popper, with “two dour-faced men in tuxedos.” They prepared “an elaborate, flaming coffee-liqueur concoction,” making DiBenedetto burst into laughter. "We're taking this show back to Antoine's," he told his wife, "but we'll do it with a smile on our faces. " Named “The Top of Antoine's,” (a riff on Top of the Crown) most patrons just called it “Tony's fireball.” When someone ordered it, DiBenedetto donned a firefighter’s hat and arrived at the table “waving a soup ladle and brandishing a handyman's propane torch" as Popper described it in the Star.
Many memories of Antoine’s/Tony’s involved another boozy libation, again the result of DiBenedetto’s encounter with some pretentious customers. In 1975, a party came in overly dressed up for such a casual place. When they inquired about the dessert menu, DiBenedetto was right on it. “Where the hell do you think you are, still on the Plaza?” Of course he always made these ripostes with humor, not nastiness, and most customers took it well. But this encounter inspired DiBenedetto to create a dessert drink. He carved out watermelons, filled them with fresh fruits, and then marinated them in wine and spirits-- sometimes rum, sometimes tequila, sometimes vodka. As the diners paid up, he appeared at their tables with the watermelon sporting one crazy straw per person, and all were invited (if they were of legal drinking age of course), to partake.
How could such a good thing come to an end, and before the DiBenedettos were ready to retire? Restaurant business along Southwest Boulevard had been in decline in the early 1990s, but it was not revenue loss alone that precipitated the DiBenedettos’ decision to leave; rather it was their sadness. “Things have changed,” Tony explained to Popper. “People used to come here and let us take care of them like they were guests in our home. Now they demand things. I still go around joking with customers, but some of them look at me like I'm crazy or bothering them or something. Maybe I'm just worn down, but it's not as much fun anymore." In a moment of prideful defiance, the couple stated that they were taking their name with them when they signed an agreement to lease the property. “It’s just you and me,” Virginia reassured her husband. “Nobody’s going to follow in our footsteps.” Indeed, no one ever could.
This post is the exclusive property of Andrea Broomfield and must be acknowledged for any borrowing of material.