Historic Martin City Restaurant Savoring Family Success
On its 85th birthday, the business that’s anchored the spirit of Martin City through thick and thin is sizzling with a top shelf experience steeped in legendary cowtown tradition. Jess and Jim’s Steakhouse, and all its prime cuts and world class whiskey, continues to thrive inside the rustic brick landmark in the heart of our community.
How many family-owned steakhouses survive so long, let alone draw hundreds, even thousands of customers daily? Only a few, and this one is at the top of its game. Settle into a cozy table or belly up to the bar, and you’ll immediately get a taste of what makes Jess and Jim’s an award-winning favorite here at home and around the world. Throw back a shot, order a hand-cut steak, and stick around for dessert, and you’ll stagger out appreciating an unwavering commitment to a job well done.
“At 85, I’d say Jess and Jim’s has grown up,” explains owner and acclaimed restaurateur Mike Van Noy, taking a few minutes to chat with us before the dinner crowd pulls him away. “In the old days, we sort of herded people in and out, but now we let them take their time and really take in what makes this place unique. People want to sit back, relax, and enjoy the experience.”
“The restaurant has matured,” adds Debbie Van Noy, Mike’s wife and right hand since they were barely out of high school. “Everything you indulge in here is more refined now, from our food and drinks to our service.”
This is still the Jess and Jim’s that both Jess and Jim would recognize back in 1938. The ultra-premium meats echoing the height of Kansas City’s stockyard era, the hearty portions that country culture demands, and table side service that feels like home. It all amounts to a celebrated tradition Jim Wright handed off to his cousin, R.C. Van Noy, when he took over in the 1970s. R.C. then seared it into his son’s thinking.
“My Dad always said, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Mike remembers, still hearing R.C.’s lecturing tone even after decades since his passing. “You can add to it, but don’t replace it. And that’s what we’ve done, and it’s worked for us.”
But in other ways, the restaurant has indeed ‘grown up,’ evolving and broadening its appeal to satisfy changing tastes. “There was a time I never would have believed we’d offer an array of the best bourbon available. Jack Daniels, Elijah Craig, Woodford Reserve, the list goes on, and even our own Jess and Jim’s barrel,” says Mike leaning against a bar as familiar to him as a carving knife. “And two dozen kinds of beers. All of it is really popular.”
“I think we do a good job for customers of all ages now,” adds Debbie. “They all want choices and an experience they can really savor. That’s what we give them without sacrificing the tradition that defines us.”
Crowds are common here, especially on weekends. And over the years, Jess and Jim’s has become a symbol of how to do Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Valentines Day, and other special occasions exactly right. Mike credits relentless consistency. He says it ties together every dinner, drink, and starlit evening set to live music on the patio next to the train tracks.
“We are hell-bent on delivering a quality standard we created long ago. We get up and do it every single day, regardless of what’s going on in the world. Regardless of changing costs, circumstances, everything else. We are devoted to what we do here day in and day out, and we protect it with everything we’ve got.”
‘We’ has grown to a staff of about 50 employees. Ensuring consistency across a restaurant team that size isn’t easy, but it helps that every employee knows a precious reputation is at stake. Working at Jess and Jim’s is as much an art as it is a labor of love. Just ask Jesse Glass, or any other server.
“We want to get it right,” says Glass, hand on her hip as the other clutches menus. “We have so many regulars who know they’ll always get what they expect. I even have regulars of my own. They come in for the Jess and Jim’s experience, and to see how I add to it, too.”
If you’ve ever wondered why they don’t open more locations, or why they’ve passed up lucrative opportunities to extend their brand into high-profile commercial developments, the risk of inconsistency is the reason.
“I feel like the only way we can avoid compromising the experience is to stay in control of it,” says Mike, folding his arms, leaning in, and wagging his finger. “I’m not about to trust my reputation to someone else and delegate our brand to a group of outside managers. I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night knowing customers in some other location might not be getting the same quality we give them right here. That’s why Jess and Jim’s is a destination. There’s literally no other place like it.”
Debbie nods, patting her husband of 40 years on the back. “People say, oh you should open in this town, or be part of that development. And maybe we should expand, but we are not about convenience. Now is not the time. We still have work to do here. We can still be better right here in Martin City.”
Firm control of Jess and Jim’s reputation is more than a high priority. For Mike Van Noy, it’s nothing short of an obsession. “I live one minute away. If anything goes wrong here on any given day, and I’m not already here, I can get here and smooth it out before it balloons. That’s critical to me. I don’t want you to ever catch Jess and Jim’s having an off day.”
An Old Family Recipe.
As Jess and Jim’s turns 85, Mike Van Noy finds himself the sole owner for the first time. He bought out his brother, David Van Noy, as part of David’s recent retirement reshuffle after selling R.C.’s Restaurant and Lounge just down the street. Sole ownership is a fitting culmination of a restaurant career that dates back probably longer than it should.
“I’ve been hanging around this restaurant since I was five years old,” says Mike, looking up at a chandelier that’s been hanging even longer. “I’ve been working full-time here since I was 23 and running the place since 1988. I’ve now run Jess and Jim’s longer than my Dad did. That says a lot. Our kids have been here all their lives, too.”
“And now our grandkids are about to come in, marking the 5th generation. The oldest is 16 and the youngest are two little ones about to turn two years old,” says Debbie, with a sense of pride only a grandmother can feel. “People in our family meet up here. They get married. They move on, and they move back. So much of that is going on constantly with our own family and our employee family.”
The extended Van Noy family tree has left its mark all over Martin City, but Mike and Debbie’s own branches are long and winding all by themselves, traceable back more than 44 years to that day Debbie came around looking for a part time restaurant job as a teenager. She jumped into the business with both feet and married Mike a few years later, beginning another chapter in the Van Noy entrepreneurial story.
And now their kids are stepping up as key restaurant managers, and adding important influences of their own. “Our son Mike Jr. is the one who championed the introduction of bourbon and all the beer varieties at Jess and Jim’s,” says Mike, shaking his head. “We really battled over it and he had to work me pretty hard to get me to come around. But he was right. Now people say we have the best bourbon selection in Kansas City. And our daughter Ashley was behind the push for homemade desserts. Have you had a slice of our pies?”
“The four of us make a great team,” says Debbie. “But it’s no secret that we’ve been known to fight a little too.” They both lean back with grins and begin telling stories about knock down drag outs erupting from restaurant stress and typical family frictions. “I remember the first day we switched to computers. It just wasn’t going well and we’re freaking out right before closing and shouting back and forth. We didn’t realize a few customers were noticing. One of them said, ‘Wow, you guys are like the Kardashians!’”
A little too much like the Kardashians, actually. The Jess and Jim’s Van Noys were once approached about doing their own reality television show. “Turned them down flat,” remembers Debbie. “Are you kidding me?”
“Yeah, it’s a good night when we don’t leave arguing,” says Mike, rolling his eyes. “We now set aside two days each week to be together outside of the restaurant. One day is for the extended family. The other is just for me and Debbie.”
Riding the Rails Since ‘Restaurant City.’
Jess and Jim’s Steakhouse dates back to when Martin City was still a ‘city.’ The restaurant was in operation for a quarter century before Kansas City annexed Martin City in the 1960s, following an era of rebuilding from a devastating tornado.
“The original Jess and Jim’s was at the site where the original Jack Stack Barbecue now stands,” says Mike pointing to historic photos along the wall. “The tornado blew out a big part of the restaurant, so Jess and Jim’s just moved up the street into the heart of town next to the train depot where we’ve been ever since.”
The 1970’s heralded in the era of what Mike fondly recalls as ‘Restaurant City,’ when the Martin City neighborhood boomed with a variety of good food, strong booze, late night rowdiness, and occasional bar room brawls. The neighborhood’s nightlife caught fire from the spark of Jess and Jim’s popularity, and R.C. Van Noy’s ambition seemed insatiable. His knee-jerk decisions to open, close, and rearrange restaurant spaces kept his sons working round the clock.
There was the Jess and Jim’s Annex for a time, created to corral the overflow of customers from the main location. R.C. took over the old Methodist Church building (now The Martin Event Space) and boldly double decked it with the wild Country Junction bar upstairs and the El Charito Mexican eatery below. There was the Pasta House, R.C.’s Cantina, and a pub, too. Imagine what it was like managing all of that.
“That was the only time in my adult life when I wasn’t on the clock in Martin City, and it didn’t last long,” says Debbie. “I was taking care of little ones at home while Mike was opening restaurants, working them, and closing them down each night, one by one, all the way to 3am. He’d get home about 5am, grab a few hours of sleep, and then get right back at it again. As soon as our kids were old enough to go to school, I went back to work helping him.”
Time passed, and the turbulent ‘Restaurant City’ era settled into a steadier pace. R.C. Van Noy focused his operations and eventually rededicated himself to the steakhouse that started it all. Through the late 1980s and 90s, Martin City was adrift and seemed almost forgotten as highways and fresh suburbs were built up all around it. At times, Jess and Jim’s enduring appeal, high profile, and loyal following appeared to be the main reasons the lights stayed on in our neighborhood.
Even the Covid pandemic shutdown in 2020 was no match for the restaurant’s resilience. We’ll never forget the image of Mike diligently scrubbing pots and pans when there was nothing else to do, sending a message of stability and normalcy at a critical moment when Martin City’s streets were eerily quiet. All eyes were on him as workers feared for the restaurant’s fate and their own jobs.
“I can tell you this, if Jess and Jim’s had not been here through the slow years, the idea of Martin City would have faded,” says Mike. “There would have been people living here, but there would have been little more to it in terms of community. Now look at us. So many people don’t just know about Martin City, they love it. We like to think Jess and Jim’s has something to do with that. We kept Martin City going. The legacy of the old west roots, the reputation of good food and entertainment, and even the launch of the Community Improvement District. We’re a big part of the heart and soul of this community.”
And what will Jess and Jim’s look like at 100? “Oh, I’ll still be here,” says Mike with a smile. “We’ll keep changing with the times around the edges, but we’ll still be staying true to what’s worked since the beginning.”
A betting man would put money on that prediction. Martin City is thriving again with a diverse mixture of neighborhood businesses buoyed by a surging restaurant and entertainment scene rivaling the old days. At the heart of it all is that historic landmark with the steer keeping watch on 135th Street near the tracks. As sure as those trains will keep chugging through Martin City, the neighborhood’s oldest restaurant and famous family-owned steakhouse will keep opening its doors, carefully carving its meat, pouring its bourbon, and slicing its pie.