Jess and Jim’s celebrates 80 years of business
by Jill Draper
There’s moo-ch to celebrate at Jess and Jim’s this month as the famed Martin City steakhouse kicks off a year-long series of specials in honor of 80 years in business, and there’ll be a whole lot of mooing about it. That’s because the big cow on top of their historic building at 517 E. 135th St. is now wired for sound. Push a red button on the patio and the cow speaks as cows do. With a long, low moo.
“We thought it would be a fun thing to do for our anniversary,” says Debbie Van Noy.
The restaurant, one of the oldest in Kansas City, first opened its doors in April 1938, and throughout this month on Sunday through Thursday, customers can order a 5-ounce filet (with salad, potato, garlic toast and pickled beets) for $19.38. In May the special might be a prize ticket taped under certain seats, or a night of music from the 1980s.
“We’re still making plans,” says Debbie, who manages the business with her husband Mike Van Noy, their two adult children and Mike’s sister, Jana Moore. Down the road, Mike’s brother David runs RC’s Restaurant and Lounge. Jana keeps the books for both places. They all get along remarkably well, and the three families share a nearby 12-acre farm where they’ve built homes.
An especially big event, as many know, happened in 1972 when Calvin Trillin named Jess and Jim’s one of the country’s best steakhouses in Playboy magazine. The publication confirmed its endorsement again in 2001, and every week the restaurant still sells 30 to 40 Playboy strip dinners, described as “25 oz. of pure beef goodness for $51.99.”
The meat for their steaks is from Wichita-based Sterling Silver (a consistently higher grade than certified Angus, says Mike) and is hand-cut daily with the trimmings ground into meat for burgers. Potatoes are hand-cut for fries, and desserts like apple pie and carrot cake are house-made. The pickled beets served free with every dinner are based on an old family recipe.
“The main thing people like is that everything is made fresh. You never have yesterday’s food,” says Debbie.
The restaurant has changed, of course, since Jess Kincaid and Jim Wright moved it into a 1902 building that once held a roller rink above a pharmacy and soda shop. Jess eventually left the business and Jim hired R.C. Van Noy to help. All three have since died, but the Van Noy children and their children continue to operate it as a family business.
The most recent additions are a patio and fire pit outside, new track lighting inside and new front windows. For years the bar had four taps for draft beer, and now there are 24. But the changes have been minimal. The walls are covered with yellowed articles, restaurant reviews and old photos for a look that some call no-frills, old-school or even dowdy. Others find it classic and cozy.
“I can’t count how many people come in here after being away for 25 or 30 years and comment on how it hasn’t changed a bit,” notes Mike. “They say, ‘Oh, I’m finally home.’”
That’s probably why customers poured into Jess and Jim’s after 9/11 happened. “They said it was because the restaurant is a comfort zone, and they felt comforted here,” says Debbie. “We should write a book about things like that. We really should.”
But on this day the lunch crowd is beginning to arrive and she hurries off to work the front of the house, where she’ll greet friends, help servers and bus tables. Mike heads to the basement to hand cut steaks, and Jana to the office in search of a check. David can see the sign for RC’s from the entrance door, and he knows the parking lot there is beginning to fill with its own customers.
“Gotta run,” he says. “Nice talking with you, but I gotta run.”
A long-time diner from a nearby table has been following along, and leans in to finish the conversation. “I’m the same age as this place, and let me tell you, the food is outstanding, the price is terribly reasonable, and it’s friendly.” He pauses a bit for emphasis. “It’s a friendship place.”
Left: Jess Kincaid and Jim Wright started the restaurant in 1938 where Jack Stack is today. Right: RC Van Noy and Jim Wright became business partners after Kincaid retired. Photos courtesy Van Noy family.
Growing Up at Jess and Jim’s
Recently, the three Van Noy siblings–David, Mike and Jana–sat down to talk about growing up in the restaurant business under the tutelage of their father, R.C., and his business partner “Uncle” Jim Wright, both of whom they described as characters.
Van Noy family memories include:
- How Mike and David stood atop milk crates to help wash dishes (and play with the sprayer) on weekends beginning in elementary school. “We had to run out the back door every time someone showed up who could have been checking on child labor laws,” Mike jokes.
- How their dad built Jana a special “deuces” section (tables of two) when she became a teenage waitress.
- How a converted meat room was turned into a backroom bar for the rougher customers in the 1960s. It was named “The Twister” after the 1957 tornado that flattened the original Jess and Jim’s location on Holmes Road where Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue now stands.
- How their dad and uncle used a pay phone in the front of the restaurant for years before getting a business phone.
- How Mike, at age four or five, got his arm stuck in the barroom pool table and was rescued by a kitchen worker with a pool cue only minutes before a firefighter was ready to smash the table apart with an axe—the same table that Uncle Jim, a gambler, would shut down to customers if he was losing.
- How quarters painted with red nail polish served as “house” money for the jukebox. These were easily sorted and returned when it was periodically emptied.
- How a gasoline truck crashed into a train at the railroad crossing in 1973 before there were gate arms. The resulting fire scorched the entire east side of their building and melted the tail lights on their mom’s car.
- How Mike and Debbie met while working at R.C.’s as teenagers. They dated for several years before marrying on a Monday so the weekend restaurant business would not be disrupted.
- How the IRS ordered an audit of the business in the 1980s. Instead of owing money, Jess and Jim’s wound up receiving some $200,000 in overpayments.
- How Mike and his dad were called into court in the late ’80s after they purchased an old Sirloin Stockade bull, fixed it up and installed it on the roof. “You mean to tell me that someone is complaining because you’re a steakhouse and you have a cow on the roof?” the judge asked incredulously. “Case dismissed!”
- How the kitchen endured two fires and major smoke damage before Mike discovered that just-baked croutons were igniting a plastic storage container. “Any other restaurant would have shut down for a week afterward, but this is our livelilhood,” Jana says. “I had a clipboard and we called in everyone to help, including a smoke damage restoration crew. We were open by dinner time.”