Sorry, French Laundry. Give it up, Per Se. You didn’t top Calvin Trillin’s list. The eminent food writer has famously declared that the best restaurant in the entire country is—drum roll—Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue—by extraordinary coincidence, in Calvin’s home town, Kansas City.
I’m here to verify that claim. The way devout pilgrims crawl on their knees to Lourdes, I pay homage to the pitmasters at Bryant’s. And I’m not alone. The line out the modest storefront’s door is a pastiche of business suits, cops’ uniforms, sports legends’ jerseys and truckers’ denims. Autographed photos of pleased patrons run from Count Basie to Bill Clinton (and there are 200 barbecue joints here in KC to choose from). These ribs bristle with a hickory-blackened crust, their fat left behind in the pit, and served naked. Slather them, if you wish, with Bryant’s trinity of sauces—original (tart), spicy, or sweet. Ignore their bedding of Wonder Bread and enjoy. (Note: Bryant’s has gone a bit uppity. On previous visits, a roll of paper towels anchored each table. Today, it’s paper napkins.)
A mixed marriage in KC, abhorred by relations on both sides, involves a fan of Bryant’s wedded to a Gates aficionado. Branded by a silhouette of a gent in a top hat, Gates Bar-B-Q is a bit more genteel. They actually greet customers instead of barking at them. Gates’ ribs are uber-tender, almost dainty by KC standards, backed by a similarly addictive smoked brisket.
But wait, as they say: There’s more! We’d joined KC BBQ Tours (www.kcbarbecuetours.com ) for a four-hour, four-pit expedition, which included some under-the-radar local secrets like L.C.’s. Pushed by popular demand, Mississippi-born L.C. Richardson has expanded his no-frills joint from three to six tables, for which he flame-broils his bones till they’re supremely flavorful and juicy. Likewise, his burnt ends.
Woodyard Barbecue—which started out selling wood to DIYers—now sells meat as well. And thank goodness. The burnt-end chili is a winner, as is the homemade sausage. But the real treat is the pork butt, smoked five hours over pear wood. (At what temp, I inquired. “Optimum” was the succinct answer.) Anyway, smoked till “barking,” which means the charred end of the brisket is ready to be scraped off, and the whole thing started over.
Well, four ’cue joints wasn’t quite enough for us, so a pal and I waddled over to Oklahoma Joe’s, a former gas station-turned-gastronomic with what local polls contend is the best of the best, and I’ll give ’em credit. After standing in line over an hour—it’s de rigueur—we savored (read: slobbered over) the best pulled pork on the planet—juicy, flush with flavor, and topped with slaw. Plus a plate of beyond-wonderful burnt ends. Worth the drive? Worth the airfare!
But KC doesn’t live on bones alone, not on your James Beard medals. We gussied up for dinner and headed to Bluestem, where Corby Garrelts proves why he was chosen Best Chef Midwest. My picks on his five-course menu of local flavors started with aerated foie gras with wild plums, coffee-cardamom “soil,” ice cream and honey (!), followed by risotto dotted with nettles, then arctic char atop eggplant and sweet onions. Missouri hen paired with Kansas duck alongside squash, duck fat aplenty, and “pears off the trees of Missouri”, preceding a grand finale of pumpkin fritter gilded with creme fraiche, black tea, salted caramel, pumpkin seeds and candied squash. Between each course appears a little “surprise” from the kitchen.
Garrelts recently added Rye to his resume. “Bluestem features how I was taught, but I grew up eating what we serve here,” he explains. “ It’s actually okay to love those things again, even if they’re not high-tech. It’s cooking from the heart. No one cooks fried chicken anymore, and people are ready for it again. Ready to get back to their culinary roots.” Are we ever! Those Amish chickens take the prize. Corby brines them, then adds baking powder to their flour coating for super-crispiness. The kitchen goes through 400 pounds of chicken a week, with good reason. And its accompanying veggies (think corn soup, heirloom tomato and arugula salad, kale, okra) come from family-run farms.
Michel Smith, another Beard winner, put KC on the dining map when he cheffed at the elite American Restaurant. Now as master of his eponymous café, he favors New American dining. Right beside it in the Crossroads District, his newest, Extra Virgin, offers offbeat tapas of Asian-to-Latin flavors. In both, he puts diners first (and isn’t that a novel idea?). “I think about how the customer is eating the food,” rather than photo-op plate presentations. Start with ultra-local tomato and peach salad (genius combo), then proceed to braised rabbit upon gnocchi with shiitakes and Parmesan. Or pork cheeks with roasted plums, haricots verts and lentils. Or ruby trout with succotash, chanterelles and a lime-carrot sauce. Step next door to push the envelope with adventurous starters like his best-selling duck tongue tacos (“I go through 35 pounds a week”) or crispy pig’s ear salad. There are tuna ceviche tacos for the more mainstream palate, along with wood-fired poblano mac and cheese, and chicken thighs stuffed with figs and chorizo. “Almost every chef in town has worked for me,” says Smith, “and when they’re ready to go out on their own, I help them with their business plan. I teach them that the way to get good at their jobs is—travel!”
Affaire is a brand-new dinner stop favoring modern takes on Germanic cooking (and yes, the familiar wiener schnitzel/sausages fare too). Lidia’s represents the 15-year-old outpost of bold-name Italian chef Lidia Bastianich, who picked KC for her first venture outside NYC. She pours her own privately-labeled wines with her fritto misto, and more.
Then it’s down to the West Bottoms, near the Farmers Market, for Adam Northcraft’s Local Pig, a butcher shop/charcuterie calling on humanely-raised meats from local farms to produce the 350 pounds of primo bacon he goes through weekly , plus bacon pate, sriracha head cheese, coppa with tangerine and sage, and yummy sandwiches. For a grand finale, inhale the bonbons from Christopher Elbow Artisanal Chocolates. Elbow also worked at the famed American Restaurant before concentrating on his passion. Best seller: fleur de sel caramels, followed by chocolate-enrobed raspberry jelly, all small-batch, hand-painted jewels. “Look for balance between the filling and the chocolate,” Elbow counsels.
Okay, KC also knows how to mix a mean cocktail. Belly up to the bar at the classic Rieger Hotel, where mixmasters shake a mean Unicycle (aperol, grapefruit, vodka, sparking wine) and Pendergast, named for the city’s notorious political boss during the days of Prohibition, during which in KC, never mind, booze continued to flow freely.
Finds, Quirky and Quaint, Circle KC
Everything’s up to date in Kansas City—Rodgers & Hammerstein swear it’s so—but venture beyond the city limits back into the vintage, westward ho-ing small towns circling the bright lights in a 30-mile radius, and you’re in for some amusements—quaint to quirky—no big city can produce.
First stop, Independence, Missouri, home of the Truman Library (sorry: closed till the bigwigs in D.C. decided to play nice—something that never happened during the Truman reign). Never mind: There’s a handcarved Truman marionette at the Puppetry Arts Institute, a homespun collection gathered by Hazelle Rollins, who morphed her cottage industry into the largest puppet factory in the world, meanwhile amassing entrancing additions on her global travels. Puppets string from Punch and Judy to Vietnamese shadow figures. Make your own puppet and put on a show, too. (www.hazelle.org )
Then there’s Leila’s Hair Museum, but it’s not what you think it is: no wigs. Leila Cahoon, a beautician by trade, has amassed the only collection in the world saluting hair woven into jewelry, “the way they preserved family memories before the days of Kodak,” says Leila, 80, who owns over 500 wreaths and 2,000 watch chains, rings, buttons and brooches—fabricated , she instructs, by Victorians via “35 techniques with no written directions” until the advent of the Flapper, and her bob. Ogle hair of famous persons, from Lincoln and Elvis to the Virgin Mary (so Leila claims.) (www.hairwork.com/leila)
The 1859 Jail and Marshal’s Home proves history can be quirky, too—at least, if you’ve outlaw Frank James as your prisoner. After brother Jesse had been killed, a bounty was placed on Franks’ head, so, for safety’s sake, he turned himself in. His cell looks mighty comfy, not that he was in it much; he managed to go for walks about town, attend the opera and dine with the marshal’s family. (www.jchs.com)
The National Frontier Trails Museum answers that burning question: Why head west? The rich didn’t need to; the poor couldn’t afford the gear. Instead, the five trails that passed through Independence attracted trappers, honeymooners, missionaries, and fugitives, including escaping slaves. Conestoga wagons underscore the first-hand accounts collected here. “I never yoked oxen before, but I was about to commence driving my own team” from one optimist, followed by “Dear Mother, I wish you were here, seeing the respectability of the company.” Less cheery: “We couldn’t ride, so we trudged along.” Or simply, “Made 15 miles.” (www.FrontierTrailsMuseum.org)
The Mahaffie family of Indiana made it as far as Olathe, Kansas, on the Santa Fe Trail, where putting down roots seemed a better choice than plunging further west. By 1865 they’d built a farmhouse and barns that served as a stagecoach stop for hungry travelers and weary horses. Today, tour the farm, admire the livestock, give the blacksmith a hand, and stop for refreshments in the cellar kitchen before boarding the working stagecoach for a bumpy tour of the site. (www.www.mahaffie.org)
Shawnee Town (aim north) showcases a reconstructed village from another era. Everybody, totally everybody around here, celebrates the 1860s, so Shawnee decided to fast-forward to 1929, when new arrivals from Belgium turned the land into truck gardens to supply KC’s Farmers Market. Wander past the cornstalks and pea patches to inspect a farmer’s home, with linoleum and oilcloth outfitting the kitchen. There’s the icebox, the Singer treadle sewing machine, the wind-up Victrola—and in the garage, a spiffy 1927 Nash. Inspect the dry goods store, the bank, the town hall, the barber shop, the jail, the schoolhouse. (www.shawneetown.org)
Got potvitica? No, it’s not a plague, although its flavor is pretty contagious. Povitica (po-va-teet-sa) is a ridiculously delicious Croatian pastry produced by Strawberry Hill Povitica Bakery in Merriam, whose owners love-love-love to give foodies a free tour and tastings. First the dough is flattened into a translucent circle big as a cocktail table, then spread with filling and wrapped up with a flick of a pastry cloth, ready for baking—like a strudel, but more so. Best seller: the English walnut version, followed closely by poppyseed, apple cinnamon and a dozen more. (www.povotoca.com ) Close by in KCKS, Strawberry Hill Museum, a stately Queen Anne home overlooking the skyline of Kansas City, then a Catholic orphanage, now unfolds the story of the area’s Eastern European immigrants, with rooms, once nuns’ cells, showcasing precious artifacts from fatherlands like Poland, Ukraine and Croatia.
Hang a left for Bonner Springs to find your inner child of bygone times at Moon Marbles, another oddball (excuse me) enterprise. Here jovial owner Bruce Breslow, a woodworker by trade and an eternal kid at heart, started fashioning his scrap lumber into boards for marble games. But marble mania took over. Bruce started selling those little glass collectibles with a stock of 85,000. It’s now over two million beauties, eagerly bagged by nostalgic baby boomers “and all those who missed out on playing marbles,” Bruce explains. He’s expanded his stash to include prank gifts (squirrel underpants, inflatable moose), displays of vintage games, and marble-making demos. (www.moonmarble.com )
Leavenworth, to the North, boasts braggin’ rights as the oldest city in Kansas, launched in 1854 to outfit wagons heading westward— famous today for Fort Leavenworth, through which every last American General has passed (open to tour) and Leavenworth Penitentiary (tours only for convicts). It’s here that Buffalo Bill Cody, at the tender age of ten, started riding for the Pony Express. Another kind of pony parades at the C.W. Parker Carousel Museum, showcasing many a pretty carved and painted critter—antiques garnered from around the world—as well as a complete carousels, from the “primitive” 1850 model to a flamboyant number from 1913, which still whirls visitors around. (www.firstcitymuseums.org)
The Richard Allen Cultural Center unfolds the more somber story of Blacks in Kansas, with exhibits ranging from memorabilia of humiliating artifacts like Sambo and Jemima to photos of the KKK’s parade down Main Street and the area’s push to desegregate buses in 1925 (far before Birmingham), to the “colored” sign ripped from a drinking fountain by local Black lawyer Donald Holloway, later MLK’s attorney. There’s the tallow lantern that helped teen slave John Bass make his escape, pointed out proudly by Phyllis Bass, his grandmotherly descendent. Walk through the humble home that once housed a Buffalo Soldier and a statue commissioned by Gen. Colin Powell to commemorate those Black fighters in the Civil War. (www.richardallenculturalcenter.info.)
Then pop into another historic icon for a sweet finale—downtown’s Corner Pharmacy, a soda fountain/lunch counter/pill dispenser since 1872, where today, my turkey dinner still rang in at $5, followed by homemade pie, where slices of maple cream, blackberry, apple-rhubarb and lemon meringue dominate the temptations.
Back in Missouri, two tiny vintage towns draw visitors enthralled by a blast from the past. Weston (www.westonmo.com) boasts not only the oldest brewery west of the Mississippi, but a far newer winery—Pirtle—housed in a former church and open for free tastings that range from the elite Alhambra (reminiscent of a Pinot Noir) and Mellow Red to effervescent blueberry (oh, go on: Try it!) and sweet, honeyed mead.
Parkville (pop. 400) has been home to Park College, since 1875 accepting “all students willing to work”—men, women, black, white—on its pretty campus. Today they liven Main Street’s coffee house, galleries, antiques shops, and boutiques like HMS Beagle, one-stop shopping for science geeks, supplying rocks and fossils and gold-panning pans, along with, um, rockets. Its neighbor, Florilegium, is a crafter’s nirvana, with a Midsummer Night’s Dreamy setting of ribbons and yarn, lace, beads and buttons. French Bee Bakery practices an even more accessible artform, including best-selling rosemary-apricot bars, lavender doughnuts and orange-chocolate scones. And for dinner, Café des Artistes is a must. In a brick structure from 1844, émigré Guillaume and his wife recreate French bistro fare, from truffled pate and coquilles St. Jacques to beef filet with Roquefort foam and quail stuffed with foie gras.
SIDEBAR: Between Bites
18th & Vine: This was THE place to be for KC’s African-American community in the ’20s and beyond, buoyed by new arrivals from the South seeking jobs and education. The vibrant crossroads had it all: bars, jazz club, social clubs, doctors, stores and restaurants in the days where Blacks couldn’t try on clothes or get a bite to eat downtown. Jazz greats played till dawn, when folks headed first to church, then to the ball game, dressed to the nines. The story comes to life in the American Jazz Museum, (Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald)—live concerts, too—and the Negro League Baseball Museum, whose Black all-stars prevailed over challenges like no hotel room, railroad car nor diner to serve them on the road, culminating in the breakthrough by Jackie Robinson in 1947.
National World War I Museum: “Where the story of way is told from everybody’s point of view,” and 9,000 red poppies represent the 9,000,000 dead. The “great adventure” imagined of flashing sabers and brave deeds soon gave way to the grim reality of stalemate in the trenches, “a place of despair” for four long years, as vividly portrayed through first-hand accounts and artifacts.
Got art? The home/studio of Thomas Hart Benton, Missouri’s most famous painter and the first-ever artist to grace the cover of Time Magazine, showcases the man who chose to produce “common art for the common man,” including the mural in the Presidential Library of his pal, Harry Truman. The Nelson Atkins Museum sports classics, starting with notable Egyptian and Chinese collections, on through the bold names of European painters, with Claes Oldenberg’s ginormous shuttlecocks anchoring the lawn. Check out its “Here and Queer” tours. Nearby, the Kemper spotlights contemporary art. Even more contempo are the indie galleries of the Crossroads District, with 10,000 admirers cruising the streets every First Friday. October’s FF hailed LGBT Human Rights Month, where the boys convened—as always—at Hamburger Mary’s.
Gay KC: Show-Me Pride, in early June, draws 30,000 visitors. Gay Film Fest, later in June, is another hit. Visit bars Missie B’s for drag shows and dancing; Bistro 303 for an upscale, all-out time; and Out Abounds, sports bar supreme. Hotel Phillips (chic renovation of a classic property) is ultra-welcoming. For info, www.visitkc.com or 888-474-8520.