“Don’t tell anybody about it!”
It being surprisingly hip Kansas City, lest the secret get out and spoil the bohemian charm. Oops.
Kansas City may still serve the world’s best barbecue, but lately it’s the art scene that’s cooking. The downtown Crossroads Arts District rose out of vacant warehouses and is now populated with enterprising artists, funky shops, cheeky theaters, new restaurants, and dozens of gallery spaces. A monthly art crawl attracts thousands of visitors and has caught the notice of USA Today, which named the Crossroads one of the top thriving arts scenes outside New York. Lofts (and rents) are starting to rise, and artists grumble about growing gentrification. But the scene feels excitingly unspoiled—New York’s Alphabet City 10 years ago. After hours, it’s gritty as charred ribs, and the risky art reflects the area’s unfettered ambiance.
Until recently, Kansas City was the quintessential cow town, crisscrossed by railroads and stockyards—hence, barbecue. Before that, it was a portal to the West; wagon trains rolled through an area near downtown known, appropriately, as Westport, the city’s oldest settlement. In the 1920s, Kansas City anointed itself the “Paris of the Plains” and eventually built more boulevards than the City of Lights and more fountains than anyplace outside Rome. By Prohibition, the city’s speakeasies were as famous as its corrupt City Hall, with all-night jazz joints and do-nothing cops fueling good times, good music, and a good way to lose your wallet, one way or another. Long riven by segregation, Kansas City exploded in race riots in the 1960s. Subsequent “white flight” left downtown somewhat deserted and sent the suburbs sprawling. Today, a new generation is reigniting the city with condos, martini bars, and sleek eateries. Just remember, downtown Kansas City is actually in Missouri—that’s Miz-ZUR-ah to you north’ners.
Strolling through the Hotel Savoy (219 W. Ninth St., 816-842-3575), the oldest hotel in Kansas City, is like touring a period movie set. Light streams through art nouveau stained glass in a dome above the reception desk, and carved oak woodwork and marble floors belie its beginnings as a cattlemen’s hotel in 1888. Little has changed since Teddy Roosevelt, Will Rogers, and John D. Rockefeller stayed here and dined at the Savoy Grill, where native son Harry S. Truman ate often enough to have his own booth. These days, the landmark is slowly being restored as a bed and breakfast (only 22 of its 200-plus rooms are available; breakfast can include lobster bisque, sautéed lamb, and baked oysters). Staying here is akin to living in a museum, with claw-foot tubs, creaky floors, and antique furniture—raw history.
In the historic mansion district, within walking distance of museums and the Country Club Plaza shopping area, Southmoreland on the Plaza Bed and Breakfast (116 E. 46th St., 816-531-7979) resembles a New England inn, with 12 luxurious, antique-filled rooms and a separate suite in the carriage house. The Raphael historic boutique hotel (325 Ward Pkwy., 800-821-5343) near the Plaza made Condé Nast’s 2005 list of the World’s Best Places to Stay. The Quarterage Hotel (560 Westport Rd., 800-942-4233) offers romantic getaways in the funky Westport neighborhood.
Going to Kansas City and not having barbecue would be like forgoing pasta in Italy. Every few blocks, you smell roasting meat and see the telltale woodpile out back. Arthur Bryant’s (1727 Brooklyn Ave., 816-231-1123), near the 18th and Vine historic jazz district, was called “the single best restaurant in the world” by author and Kansas City native Calvin Trillin, though the place looks like the worst. A glass wall fronts a Blakean kitchen, blackened and belching smoke as if heated by the Earth’s core. You order out of one hole in the glass and your food comes out another, as primal and sustaining as fire itself.
Bluestem (900 Westport Rd., 816-561-1101), whose proprietor was declared one of Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs of 2005, is quietly slipping a white tablecloth under the KC dining scene, serving such haute cuisine as a torchon of foie gras in smallish, sophisticated surroundings just outside the boisterous Westport entertainment district. Next door, the brick walls, wood floor, and chalkboard menu of Pot Pie (904 Westport Rd., 816-561-2702) offer a warm ambiance for what laid-back chef/co-owner John Williams (a.k.a. J. Dubb) calls “dressed-up comfort food,” from California sea bass to, yes, two kinds of potpies.
Along Southwest Boulevard at Summit Avenue, the city’s Mexican immigrants have opened a string of restaurants (along with grocery stores and other businesses), and everyone in town has a different favorite. The most upscale eatery may actually be the Spanish-flavored La Bodega (703 Southwest Blvd., 816-472-8272), popular with the capris-and-khakis set for paellas and tapas.
In the ring of restaurants around City Market, a huge farmers’ bazaar, the open-air Succotash cafe (15 E. Third St., 816-421-2807) has distinguished itself by having fun with breakfast food. Locals line up for the Cake and Smile, an anthropomorphic pancake with a bacon grin.
Perhaps the most romantic restaurant in town is Le Fou Frog (400 E. Fifth St., 816-474-6060), a fancy but fun French bistro downtown. With live jazz and a garden courtyard, you can feel as if you’ve taken your date to Paris without spending a fortune. Well, maybe a small one.
THE TO-DO LIST
During the art crawl on the first Friday of the month, the Crossroads Arts District is swarming with the young and the suit-less, as well as suburbanite shoppers. Some 60 art galleries, shops, and other show places are tucked into this warren of warehouses; the action is thickest around 20th and Baltimore streets. Off–art crawl, you practically have the neighborhood to yourself. YJ’s Snack Bar (128 W. 18th St., 816-472-5533), a four-table coffee shop, is the scene’s spiritual center, where artists hobnob over lattes and ravioli. On the same block, Birdies lingerie boutique (116 W. 18th St., 816-842-2473) has attracted more than its share of attention for a shop the size of an office cubicle, including mentions in National Geographic Traveler and Bust. Co-owned by local art star Peregrine (as in falcon) Honig, the place sells unmentionables worth mentioning (undies as art, such as hammer-and-sickle–adorned bras) by local and national designers.
The city’s two largest art museums, both free, are within walking distance of one another. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (4525 Oak St., 816-751-1278), known for its two enormous Shuttlecocks sculptures by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, may remind you of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, with its neoclassical façade and strong Asian collection. If only the MIA had a gorgeous colonnaded courtyard restaurant and a terraced sculpture garden with works by Henry Moore. The Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art (4420 Warwick Blvd., 816-753-5784) offers a small but adventurous slice of today’s global art scene, such as a recent exhibition of Asia’s avant-garde that featured edgy video installations and photography.
With its waterfall and fountains ringing the outfield, Kauffman Stadium, home of the Kansas City Royals since 1973, is one of the more elegant places to watch baseball. Another plus: if you come for a Twins game, you’re almost certain to see them win. 1 Royal Way, 816-921-8000.
Prospero’s Books is magic indeed. A cello rests above the door, vintage typewriters are scattered about—it’s an eclectic tempest that includes 50,000 tomes, live music and readings, and a publishing concern that churns out chapbooks. Proprietor Will Leathem estimates that about 50 percent of Kansas City’s working artists live within a mile of the store, which is ground zero for the 39th Street Artwalk art crawl the third Friday of the month. 1800 W. 39th St., 816-531-9673.
All That Jazz
The 18th and Vine jazz district has quieted considerably from its mid-century heyday, when neon signs and crowds of club hoppers heralded this center of African American social life. Two side-by-side museums chronicle the way it was. The American Jazz Museum (1616 E. 18th St., 816-474-8463), which profiles such innovators as Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald with videos and listening stations, also includes the Blue Room, a working venue named one of the top 100 jazz clubs in the world by Down Beat magazine. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (1616 E. 18th St., 816-221-1920) uses film clips and memorabilia to re-create the decades when black ballplayers—such as Satchel Paige and Hank Aaron, banned from the major leagues—played to packed stadiums on teams such as the Kansas City Monarchs. An inspiring window into an unjust time.
Shop and Be Seen
Kansas City’s most-visited “attraction” is the Country Club Plaza, a shopping district designed in 1922 in the tile-and-fountain tradition of Seville, Spain. The restaurants are upscale and swinging (the swank Mexican eatery Mi Cocina reputedly has the coolest basement dance scene after 1 a.m.). But while the statuary and clock towers are unique, the stores (Tommy Bahama, Gap, etc.) are all chains, and local hipsters roll their eyes at the Plaza’s mere mention. Don’t get run over by Segway Experience’s architecture tours tooling around on the sidewalks. Mi Cocina, 620 W. 48th St., 816-960-6426.
The Bar Hop
By day, the historic Westport entertainment district centered around Main Street and Westport Road is full of tourists reading bronze plaques on old brick buildings, visiting psychics set up on sidewalks, and dining at Korma Sutra (“Sensuous Cuisine of India,” 7217 W. 110th St., 913-345-8774). By night, twenty-somethings pack the pubs, à la Minneapolis’s Warehouse District, and police routinely block off the streets to contain the revelry. You’re not in Kansas anymore.…
Tim Gihring is a senior writer for Minnesota Monthly.