All-in-one coffee house and full bar & grill, bakery, pastries, Classic Rock Coffee Co., located in the historic Gillis Opera House built in 1883
Right outside the historic City Market in Kansas City’s River Market neighborhood, the Opera House Coffee and Food Emporium at 500 Walnut St., offers a majestic backdrop of the Kansas City skyline. Busy shoppers, hands straining from bags of heirloom tomatoes and local honey, fuel up here for the day ahead. Walking into the corner brick storefront can be a bit overwhelming at first. A coffee shop sits to the left, a bar to the right, and a grill and bakery area toward the back. Art lines the walls ranging from worn, wooden sleds to a baby blue electric guitar to a moss-covered headless mannequin. Where to start? Let’s begin with breaking down the name. Is it a restaurant? Or is it a bar? Or is it an opera house? Emporium?
Carved in stone above the Emporium’s main front door is the name “Gillis Opera House,” surrounded by the years 1883-1926. The inscription pays tribute to the first tenant of 5th and Walnut: Kansas City’s most well-known and elegant theater that opened in 1883 named after one of Kansas City’s founding fathers William Gillis (1797-1869) Gillis was an “Indian trader” who hailed from Maryland and made his way around the country harvesting his fortune. He put his money to good use in Kansas City where he helped kick-start the city’s first newspaper, The Enterprise, that later became the Kansas City Journal. Mary Troost, the niece of Gillis, inherited a large estate (cough, money, cough) from him after his death in 1867. Upon Troost’s death in 1873, Troost stated in her will that the estate money from Gillis was to be used to build the Gillis Opera House at the corner of 5th and Walnut streets; the rest of the inheritance would be put toward the Gillis Home for Orphans that a group of Christian women created in 1870. Troost simply asked that the proceeds of the Gillis Opera House would be used to support the home, which is still operating today as the Gillis Center more than 140 years later.
Thirty years before the Gillis Opera House broke ground, the Town of Kansas consisted of little more than a few rows of crowded buildings along muddy and unpaved roads with boards for sidewalks. Despite the dust and grit, the corner of 5th and Walnut became an up-and-coming intersection in Kansas City. After spending a mere $140,000, which would be a little more than $3 million today, the four-story theater, adorned with polished walnut and a sparkling glass chandelier, opened and brought high-class theater stars such as Mademoiselle Hortense Rhéa who belted her famous French-tinged lines as Beatrice from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, to Kansas City. Tickets were a steep $5 for a box seat, which would be about $120 today, especially when most people brought home less than $1 a day. A twist of fate landed upon the theater when, in 1926, a mysterious explosion all but razed the building, killing six people and injuring almost 40. The current building, standing two-stories tall, was built with fireproof brick shortly thereafter and occupied various businesses throughout the years. In 2012, the Opera House Coffee & Food Emporium opened its doors. Staying true to the corner’s first host, the owners honored the Opera House in its name. And keeping Mary Troost’s vision alive to keep theater in the River Market, the Opera House often hosts local bands and talent on its small stage, with a flashing disco ball (perhaps in memory of the original glass chandelier) and theater-style curtains, located in the middle of the 4,000 square-foot-space.
The “Coffee House and Food” portion of the name is pretty self-explanatory. The Emporium offers a wide variety of dining options. The coffee shop uses the Classic Rock Coffee Co. and features drinks named after famous rock songs such as Black Betty, espresso and hot water, and Great White Buffalo, vanilla latte. The coffee bar also offers shakes, smoothies and pastries such as the deep-fried sweet orange cinnamon rolls (holy heart-attack goodness in other words). Next, it’s time to visit the grill area of the Emporium experience. The grill offers anything from street tacos to grilled chicken paninis, from gyros to black and bleu burgers. It’s truly a foodie’s paradise. The bakery is located right next to the grill and showcases a mix of cookies, macaroons, cupcakes and everything in between. And if you’re feeling extra frisky, the Oh Bar! is a cozy room to the side to have a sip of your favorite adult beverage.
Now for the last part of the name. An emporium is known to be a large market place with a great variety of options, which describes the River Market area perfectly with its mix of ethnic foods, shops and vendors. But, the Emporium isn’t only for food-lovers. As mentioned before, it is an art gallery, like much of the City Market. Local artists and vendors can lease out sections or shelves throughout the space, which explains why price tags hang from most of the art. This also explains the random, and beautiful, pieces of art throughout the business. There are paintings, wood-work, pottery, metal sculptures and even decorative cake stands. You could spend hours simply looking at everything the Emporium has to offer.
There you have it folks, The Opera House Coffee & Food Emporium, in a nut shell, well maybe a few nutshells. Next time, don’t let the name intimidate you. It’s all about food, music, art and, mostly, fun.