When you first pull into town, it seems like most life was long-ago dragged from Toronto’s main drag.
But drive past the boarded-up and empty buildings some evenings and you may catch the scent of rich marinara sauces, baking breads and warmed, mixed cheeses.
Follow your nose through an ancient, creaking door and those scents will become even more heavenly. Your eyes will find a room decorated to befit the season, with tables adorned with linen cloths and illuminated by flickering candles.
You may hear soft piano music accented with bursts of loud laughter. Most will be from guests, but some will come from a red-headed woman, possibly with a smudge of flour on her face. She’s Courtney Neill, and you’ve found her place.
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The story behind how this former East Coast business executive came to put a popular Italian restaurant in this tiny Kansas town is as rich as her Alfredo sauces.
The tale has ingredients that include a blown RV motor, a cast on her blown knee too big to fit into her car and the eventual purchase of some prime downtown real estate for $500, plus a bowl of soup.
It ends with the morphing of five businesses into an Italian eatery that routinely draws customers from 90 minutes away in Wichita and two hours from Kansas City to Woodson County.
“I’m one of the most blessed and fortunate people in the world, to end up where I am,” Neill said. “I’ve never been a chef, and I’m Scottish, so Italian cooking is nothing I’d ever been around. This has all been just such a God-given gift.”
Others feel as fortunate.
“Courtney’s Place is a real unexpected gem. The food is quite good, and it’s just such a pleasant place,” said Anita Greenwood, a Kansas City-area business executive raised in Britain and widely traveled.
“What I really feel is special, to me, is that it is so reminiscent of Europe, in many ways.”
Making the best of bad luck
There are few parts of America where Neill hadn’t lived in her pre-Toronto days.
It was in Florida, in 1997, that she soured on corporate life, loaded her possessions in an old Winnebago and headed out.
“I wanted to move to Arizona and build a house of straw bales in the hills,” she said. “Unfortunately my RV didn’t like that idea.”
Somewhere in Mississippi its motor blew. In her tow-behind Volkswagen Beetle, Neill drove to southeast Kansas to visit relatives. Three days later she fell and shattered a knee. The 40-pound cast wouldn’t fit in her car.
“I figured I was just kind of meant to stay around here for a while,” she said, adding that she quickly felt at home.
People in Toronto rallied around her, driving her wherever she needed to go. Friendships she still enjoys today blossomed quickly. For several years she lived off of savings and odd jobs.
Walking the streets in 1998, Neill was attracted to a particular old building. It had been built in 1886 as a hardware store. While most saw it as just just another building suffering from decades of abandonment, Neill saw more.
She learned that the guy who owned the building was a bit under the weather.
“So I headed over to see him with a bowl of vegetable soup and five $100 bills. He wanted out of the building so he sold it,” she said of the building that also offered second-story living space.
“It gave me a dry roof over my head, depending on where I stood. But I could feel its charm.”
It took years of work, but in 2004 the place was open for business. In that one building Neill opened five businesses, more than all the others in tiny Toronto combined. They were gift shop, an ice cream parlor, a place for fresh-baked goods, a tea room and a pizza place.
“It was kind of like a mini-mall in Toronto,” she said. “I started them and then just watched to see what might take off, and follow it from there.”
Through pizza success, she eventually came up with a carry-out pizza and pasta business. The food part was popular. The carry-out, not so much.
“I started a bring-your-own-bowl pasta house, thinking people could take it home to eat,” Neill said. “But then people started asking if they could just stay there and eat, and visit.
“I kept listening and eventually it became apparent people wanted a nice-tablecloth, candlelight, fancy-dish restaurant right here in little Toronto, so I gave it to them.”
Bringing the European experience to smalltown Kansas
In 2010, Neill and her son, Christopher Slyter, expanded into a neighboring building they purchased for $1,100.
“I guess we were a victim of our own success, the way real estate prices had climbed,” Slyter joked of the low price. He assisted his mother with most of the remodeling work.
It’s inside the second building that they have created a dining destination that Greenwood, from Britain, describes as “a very nice Italian restaurant … yet it feels like we’re going to grandma’s house.”
The dining area seats about 50, ranging from cozy tables for two to some that could accommodate a dozen or more. Candles flicker on tables set with fine place settings. Most weekends local pianists, including Grace Stacy, a local goat rancher, softly stroke classical or romantic music from a piano by the fireplace.
Through a small passageway guests can enter a courtyard where they can sit around a cedar-scented fire to have pre-dinner drinks or post-dinner coffee and desserts from spring through fall.
“In Europe, usually when you go out it’s a celebration of the eating experience, spending time with your family and really enjoying fine food,” Greenwood said. “You get that when you go to Courtney’s.”
To encourage such feelings, Neill only books her tables once per evening.
“When you make a reservation, that table is yours for the evening,” she said. “We’re providing the best atmosphere and the best service we can to make the trip here a relaxing occasion.”
Quality over quantity
Neill said her place could not survive, especially in such a remote location, without quality food.
Rather than a vast array of selections, the menu offered to diners normally contains just four entrees – three regulars and a special. A small selection, she said, allows her to keep costs down and focus on quality cooking.
The basic menu entrees are her signature chicken Parmesan, lasagna and pasta Alfredo. Her most ordered meal is a sampler of all three. Her fourth entree, a special, is usually meat-based, like prime rib and pasta conchiglie, or stuffed pork chops and almond green beans or chicken cannelloni.
Appetizers are seasonal and currently include Italian nachos, made with rich tomato sauces, and the appropriate meats and veggies. In the fall the primary appetizer was an autumn bisque of squash, pumpkin and a hint of curry.
Five or six rich desserts are offered.
Pizzas are still served in, or can be taken out cooked or as a take-and-bake option. Traditional pizzas can be prepared, or customers can go gourmet with something like chicken rosemary, with ricotta cheese and caramelized onions.
Thumbing through the guest book shows customers approve of selections and preparations, with comments from clients from Wichita and Kansas City that rate Courtney’s Italian food better than what they can get closer to home.
Greenwood ranks the flavors well with anything she has dined upon coast to coast in the U.S., or in Europe.
“There’s just no doubt that what you’re eating is handmade and homemade,” she said. “We just enjoy it all.
“Like I said, it’s like a celebration when we eat there. They always make it feel like a special occasion.”
Reach Michael Pearce at 316-268-6382 or email@example.com.
If you go
What: Courtney’s Place
Where: Downtown Toronto, about 90 miles east of Wichita, just off U.S. 54
When: Serving hours are 5 to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; 5 to 7 p.m. Sunday. It is closed Monday and Tuesday. Reservations are required Friday and Saturday and recommended for all nights so the staff can budget how much food to prepare.
Alcohol: Alcohol is served from a modest selection. Personal wines can be brought for a $7.50 corking fee.
Cost: Entrees generally cost about $16 to $20. Prime rib is about $25. A complete meal for two, with appetizers, entrees and desserts, generally runs around $60, not including alcohol.
For more information, go to www.courtneysplaces.com or call 620-637-0175.