Chez Elle, Ma Belle
Kansas City’s Summit Street — 17th and Summit, specifically — is a delicious and vibrant destination. Artisan bread, vegetarian fare, icy treats, Mexican food, farm-to-table dining and other culinary gems are clustered in a two-block area as eclectically hip as you’ll find in KC.
The streets are lined with European scooters wedged in between late-model Volvos, pickup trucks and shiny new BMWs. The architecture blends 1900s turn-of-the century houses juxtaposed against repurposed and spiffed-up residences plucked from the pages of Dwell magazine.
One of the neighborhood’s graceful landmarks is the former Summit Theatre, which opened as a small neighborhood movie house in 1937, and is now home to Chez Elle Creperie and Coffeehouse. Proprietor Ellen Trakas, a petite sprite brimming with creative energy and vision and her husband, oral surgeon Anthony, bought the structure in 2009 and whipped it into crepe shape.
Half the structure is upscale condos; the other half is my new addiction.
Chez Elle serves gloriously plump sweet and savory crepes, mugs of steaming lattes and cappuccinos, glasses of French wine, salads, soups, pastries and a bubbly personality. It’s mostly a breakfast-lunch place, but Trakas recently started Friday and Saturday night dinner. Original canvases by Trakas and other local artists like Trey Bryan hang on the walls, customers happily buzz, bustling chefs prepare fresh crepes in an open kitchen and servers deliver endless plates of Le Franco and Acropolis and Patriote crepes to eager diners.
But it’s Chez Elle’s patrons that give the café its joie de vivre.
It’s a September Sunday morning and I’m meeting Trakas for crepes and conversation. I arrive before the queue — young urbanites, suburban professionals, families, singles, retired folks — snakes out the door near tables and red umbrellas scattered on the sidewalk, in front of Chez Elle’s awnings (“The line moves quickly,” laughs Ellen). Before I can say bon jour to my host, she beckons me to a table where Robert Wehner and Mary Rogers are breakfasting.
“This is Robert’s first time here since he was a young man,” beams Trakas.
Wehner, 91, lived in the area back in the 1920s. He remembers eating popcorn and watching silent films starring actors like George Bancroft at the Summit Theatre. “But the neighborhood was never as active as it is today,” he says, munching on Chez Elle’s Tour Eiffel crepe, “this is just marvelous.”
The line momentarily blurs — is Wehner complimenting the smoked salmon crepe or his bit of time travel?
For a magical second, on a lazy Sunday morning in 21st century Kansas City, it’s apparent Chez Elle has satisfied more than an appetite. Trakas’ little slice of heaven on Summit has fed a soul.
I settle in to order brunch.
“I’ll have what he’s having,” I tell my server, nodding to the gently smiling Wehner, lost both in his crepe and a saunter down memory lane.