“Where’s a good place to eat in town?”
When visitors come to town, whether for social or business purposes, isn’t that one of the first questions asked?
While Abilene has a lot of good places for a meal, the answer always used to include “The Kirby House”.
When Terry and Jerry Tietjens first started to fix up the old apartment building on the corner of N.E.3rd Street and Court, many thought “just what Abilene needs: another place to eat”.
But as it turned out, yeah, it is what Abilene needed.
The Kirby House atmosphere was something totally different.
In the end, its name was associated with famous landmarks in Kansas like the Hays House in Council Grove, The Swedish Crown in Lindsborg, Stroud’s in Kansas City and Arthur Bryant’s also in Kansas City.
I’ve eaten at all of those places, yet the Kirby House was different.
They didn’t run their customers through like cattle, trying to quickly fill another table: rush, rush, rush. It seems like we have turned into “The Everybody Wants it Now Generation”.
If you booked a reservation at the Kirby House, at least an hour-long meal was anticipated. That was part of the charm; forgetting the hustle and bustle of our busy lives to relax.
It was probably most famous for its steaks and, of course, the Lena’s Chicken Fried Steak. (I think my stomach just growled.)
It was also one of those unique restaurants out-of-town visitors just had to take a tour of before, or after, the meal.
Nobody gave a better tour than Terry Tietjens, describing the 1885 decor, the unique restrooms and, of course, the seemingly out of place sunken block in the wall at the top of the stairs which, if someone were to pass away upstairs, the undertaker used it to get the casket up and down the stairwell.
Tietjens said it was called a Casket Niche.
“All of the older homes had Casket Niches during that Victorian period,” Tietjens said. “And they all had a little vase sitting there or a little flower.”
Tietjens said it was used once, for the funeral of Thomas Kirby. Back then the funerals were held in the home.
The other thing the Kirby House did for Abilene was to bring in out-of-town customers. It wasn’t “Cheers”. It was more “where nobody knows your name” except for maybe the waitstaff which was loyal. For my family, the Kirby House will always be remembered for special events.
We celebrated birthdays, anniversaries, graduations and other special events at the Kirby House.
One year my wife and I were able to enjoy her birthday dinner served in the cupola. Steps make it tough for the waitstaff to get the food up there but it was a very special evening. Not many couples get to be served in a room alone.
(The waiter serving us, coincidentally a good friend, said he always made sure that his footsteps were loud enough for the couple to know he was coming, so he didn’t interrupt anything.)
The tower was taken down from the original structure but added in 1985 when Terry and Jerry restored it.
It was a popular place for businesses to entertain out-of-town guests. We also had company parties there.
One year while working for the National Greyhound Association, we had a work-related Christmas party scheduled out of town.
However, a snowstorm made the roads difficult to travel and the Kirby House opened its doors for us that night and we proceeded with our celebration of the holiday.
There have also been, on more than one occasion, when the Kirby House helped an inductee celebrate his addition to the Greyhound Hall of Fame. Sometimes those late night Thursday dinners passed beyond the midnight hour, but the staff stayed to attend to the sometimes rowdy customers.
Abilene is fortunate to have other “you just have to try eating at .....” places for dining, but the Kirby House will definitely be missed by many.