The Pendergast Era was in full swing in Kansas City. Liquor was flowing and Annie Chambers and her girls managed to find a way around the police ban that had been imposed on the Red Light District. C.C. Madison owned a federal league baseball team called the Kansas City Packers whose games were frequently cancelled due to the waters that exceeded the banks of Brush Creek. With great misfortune, Jim Crow laws were in practice, entrenching a climate of segregation that would divide Kansas City for years to come. In the meantime, while it was still in utero, we can imagine the rhythms that were melding and simmering ready to be born into a melodic explosion of Kansas City, Jazz. We can conceive of the edgy environment that was ripe to welcome a boom of construction and economic growth. This was Kansas City in 1915.
The traveling salesmen and railroad workers that passed through Kansas City frequented the Rieger Hotel in 1915. Word has it that Al Capone chose the Rieger for its easy access to Union Station and the trains that provided quick getaway. A plaque above an original urinal in the men’s room memorializes the location in which Al Capone once urinated.
Chef Howard Hanna opened The Rieger Hotel Grill and Exchange Restaurant nearly one hundred years later, in 2010. Hanna’s journey through culinary experiences has created an eclectic milieu of dining pleasures. Hanna’s parents met in French Polynesia while both were involved in the Peace Corp. While both parents were well educated, Hanna’s mother was a pioneer among Samoan women in terms of education and land ownership. While we do not find Polynesian inspired meals on the Rieger menu, its presence can be found in a fondness for cooking with pork or in the light touch of citrus at the end of a bite of tender sweetbreads. After their assignment in the Peace Corp the couple moved to Manhattan, Kansas where both served in the community as educators. Chef Hanna’s father was an avid gardener which created an early appreciation for food and its origins. Hanna began working in restaurants as a teen, continued to cook through college in both Manhattan and Lawrence and then attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York. Hanna’s culinary experiences also include travel through France and Italy.
The Rieger Hotel Building located on 20th and Main is listed on the National Register of Historic places. It is a three story building which includes apartments that are available to rent for weekends or extended stays. The cellar of the building holds the Manifesto, a speakeasy style bar and the main floor is home to The Rieger Hotel Grill and Exchange Restaurant. The main entrance leads through the Rieger Bar which represents a “period” appropriate bar complete with dark, rich wood and exposed brick. The dining room also pays tribute to the 1915 hotel with high ceilings that create a very spacious feel while providing an atmosphere perfect for an intimate discussion or business dinner conversation.
I found it a bit difficult to get Chef Hanna to talk about himself or of his accomplishments. However he spoke with pride about his restaurant staff who have relieved him of a great deal of the time and stress involved in running a restaurant. Hanna said that during the first two years of business he was absent from the restaurant only two days. Having a dependable staff has enabled him to begin a second venture, Ça Va, a Champagne Bar located on 4149 Pennsylvania, in Westport.
Hanna also spoke easily and gregariously about his enthusiasm for Kansas City. He is a soccer fan and spoke glowingly of Sporting Kansas City and the genius in the marketing of the team. Hanna spoke of his admiration for Boulevard Brewing Company’s John McDonald and the contributions that Boulevard has made to the city. Chef Hanna spoke most fervently about the local providers of fresh products used in his cooking. He stressed the importance of recognizing the work of the local farmers who produce the food that he plates and the value of consuming locally produced foods. In many cases Hanna has visited the farms that produce his ingredients and knows the farmers on a first name bases. His appreciation for the origin of the ingredients that he uses is obvious not only in his conversation but in the reverence it is given in his cooking.
Chef Hanna spoke proudly of Kansas City and the unique sense of community shared among restaurants and merchants. Kansas City’s renaissance, he said, has everything to do with the consciousness exercised by the people that live in Kansas City and their dedication to supporting local business. Hanna spoke with conviction about the Midwestern culture of friendliness and approachability. He believes that it is this culture and sense of community which will promote future growth and success in Kansas City.
The Rieger provides a truly lovely dining experience. The historic elements of are significant. The building holds the whispers of previous guests who also sought hospitality, warmth and sustenance. Chef Howard Hanna’s foods not only satisfy our hunger but delight our palates with all of the knowledge and experiences that have brought him to us. My Personal favorites are the Rabbit Liver Crostini, the Frisée salad with candied bacon and crispy shallots and the Crispy Veal Sweetbreads. The Sweetbreads leave me longing for more. Every. Single. Time.
Out of curiosity, I asked Chef Hanna his favorite soccer player. He responded by saying, “Lionel Messi, because he doesn’t play soccer out of a need for competition or for the fame, but for its beauty and the joy it brings him”. I think we can say the same for Chef Howard Hanna.