Lunchtime at Bagatelle is an experience.
Lines form down the cafeteria register and diners navigate tables waiting to be bussed, anxious to find a place to eat in the small dining room. For more than 30 years, the restaurant has been a part of Wichita’s history, and this is apparent by looking at the age spectrum of those bumping elbows.
The story starts – as many of Wichita’s restaurants tend to do – with Antoine Toubia. He opened Bagatelle in 1983, and a few years later invited John Srour, a Lebanese baker, to move to Wichita. Together with Antoine’s brother, Naji, they opened N&J (Naji & John) Bakery in 1989 and supplied Toubia’s many restaurants with pita bread that became too costly to import. Not long after, Naji left to take over Bagatelle.
It should be no surprise that Bagatelle and N&J (through John’s Pita Bakery, owned by Srour’s sons) are both known for their pitas. Unleavened, chewy and redolent with the scent of soft wheat, these pitas are the picturesque representation of Middle Eastern flatbread, as good at holding together a warm shawarma as they are at sopping up the last bits of hummus. The pita is one of the best things Bagatelle has on the menu, especially when it’s served as manoushi: brushed with olive oil and generously dusted with za’atar, a spice mix of thyme, sumac and sesame seeds. The dish is sometimes likened to a Mediterranean pizza, and can also be ordered with cheese or meat. Rolled and served alongside some pickled vegetables, it’s a foolproof way to get a taste of the Levant.
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Bagatelle’s lunch is served cafeteria-style, with a couple of rotating entrees supplementing a small static menu. For best results, stick to the things that are offered every day, particularly if empanadas are available. Not Spanish in the least, these empanadas are made with a croissant-like dough that’s filled with an Italian sausage or vegetable mixture. You can’t go wrong with either, and cutting into the buttery, flaky crust and finding the warm and well-seasoned mixtures within are one of the joys Bagatelle has to offer. Quiches also are available, as are a few shawarma options. Served with a side of tabouli or a cup of tomato soup, it’s a much better option than the slapdash and unremarkable fish and chicken specials of the day.
Bagatelle calls itself a bakery and cafe, not the other way around, so emphasis is on the baking. It offers a variety of breads, and you can help yourself to as many samples as you like from the large bin that is stocked with excess inventory. The sourdough might not compare to the lactic tang of something from Crust & Crumb, but it’s a solid performer. Bagatelle is equally known for sweets, and you can find everything from King’s Cake for Mardi Gras to sticky, sweet baklava to a variety of French pastries. You’re unlikely to be disappointed in your selection.
From the bakery case to the light French pop music playing in the dining room to the picture on the wall of a man riding a bike that’s captioned “France,” there’s an element of l’Hexagone that persists here and in many other Lebanese restaurants around town (not the least of which is La Galette, which was founded by Tony Abdayem after working at Bagatelle). It stems from World War I, after which France occupied Syria and Lebanon until 1946, introducing a good part of the culture along the way. No coincidence, then, that the dining room of Bagatelle is like that of a European restaurant: relaxed and casual, with plenty of recognizable faces making friendly conversation over reliable food. It’s a legacy that’s increasingly difficult to find in Wichita, but here the city has done right in embracing it.
Where: 6801 E. Harry, 316-684-5662
Type of food: Bakery items, Mediterranean, French-inspired
Hours: 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 8 a.m.-7 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Sundays
Price range: Most entrees range between $6 and $7