Go ahead: dismiss Kansas City as a fly-over cow town. That just leaves more of the world’s best barbecue, jumpin’ jazz clubs and one-of-a-kind museums for road trippers in the know.
Come the first weekend in October, more than 500 teams set grills a’sizzle at the American Royal World Series of Barbecue (www.americanroyal.com), held in Kansas City’s old stockyards. Now, you don’t host the globe’s largest barbecue contest unless you smoke up a mean rack of ribs yourself, and many connoisseurs say Kansas City does barbecue better than anywhere. The revered local style is slow-roasted and slathered with sweet, thick, molasses- and ketchup-based sauce (some also use a vinegar base), and options abound for trying it.
Oklahoma Joe’s (www.oklahomajoesbbq.com) is a legendary joint housed in a brightly lit old gas station across the state border in Kansas. TV chef Anthony Bourdain proclaimed it one of the 13 places to eat before you die. The pulled pork sends carnivores swooning. Know that you will wait in line, you will make a sticky mess, and you will not care one iota as the tender meat slides down the hatch.
Arthur Bryant’s (www.arthurbryantsbbq.com) is another worthy contender for finger-licking goodness. Not far from the Jazz District, the restaurant has been around for decades, firing up ribs for presidents and celebrities (see the wall photos), as well as common meatheads. The sauce is silky and fiery; the service is sweet.
Unadorned LC’s Bar-B-Q (5800 Blue Parkway) saves its grandeur for its ‘burnt ends,’ the crispy ends of smoked pork or beef brisket that are a city trademark. The hand-cut fries help soak up the deliciousness, all served on paper plates and red plastic trays.
It’s been said that jazz was born in New Orleans and grew up in Kansas City. The scene exploded in the early 1930s under political boss Tom Pendergast’s Prohibition-era tenure, when he allowed alcohol to flow freely. At its peak, Kansas City had more than 100 nightclubs, dance halls and vaudeville houses swinging to the beat (and booze).
The Historic Jazz District at 18th and Vine Sts is a reminder of that heady era. Stop in the American Jazz Museum (www.americanjazzmuseum.com) to learn your bebop from big band styles. The interactive collection includes listening stations, vintage sheet music and gig posters, Charlie Parker’s sax and Louis Armstrong’s trumpet. There’s especially good info on Parker, a Kansas City native; a 10-foot bronze head pays homage to him in the plaza on the museum’s north side.
To hear live jazz, you don’t have to go far: the museum operates the Blue Room, a slick club onsite that hosts local hep cats for free on Monday and Thursday. Touring acts perform weekends, when there’s a cover charge.
Night owls can seek out the nearby Mutual Musicians Foundation (www.mutualmusiciansfoundation.org). Set in a humble brick building – a former union hall for African American musicians – it has hosted after-hours jams since 1930. The action starts well after midnight, when veteran players cross rhythms with young hotshots. As you enter, a handwritten sign declares the bottled beers and homemade punch available. Grab a drink, then head up the squeaky stairs to the red-lit room for sweet tunes that lasts until dawn.
War, beer and art
The National WWI Museum (www.theworldwar.org) is Kansas City’s crown jewel, packed with displays about a war that is almost forgotten by many Americans. Enter via the glass walkway over a field of red poppies, the symbol of the trench fighting. Then prepare for several hours’ worth of browsing guns, uniforms, old newsreels and life-size battle mock-ups from ‘The War to End All Wars.’ Chatty guides add to the history lesson. There’s so much to see – including the sky-high Liberty Memorial column, where you take an elevator ride to the top for sweeping city views – that the admission ticket is valid for two days.
The museum is going to be plenty busy in 2014, which marks the war’s centennial. Several events are on tap, and the Liberty Memorial will unveil a $5 million spruce-up.
Speaking of on tap: Boulevard Brewing (www.boulevard.com), Kansas City’s renowned craft brewer, sits about a half-mile west of the museum. The facility offers popular free tours daily that culminate in the suds-filled tasting room. Quaff a farmhouse ale or Belgian wheat beer among the generous samples, and you'll be fortified for the city's whopping art museum...
Giant badminton shuttlecocks mark the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (www.nelson-atkins.org). They’re part of the surrounding sculpture park studded with monuments by Henry Moore, Auguste Rodin and other chiselers. Inside the main building, a rare Caravaggio painting and the vast Asian collection highlight the trove, while the glass-towered Bloch wing – dazzling with natural light – shows off contemporary works and photography. If you don’t have time to hit all the sprawling, treasure-filled galleries, come back another day: the museum is always free.
Kansas City has loads of cafe- and shop-laden neighborhoods to wander. Wherever you go, you’re sure to see burbling fountains. More than 200 squirt in the city, putting it on par with Rome.
- Country Club Plaza (www.countryclubplaza.com): Built in the 1920s, this posh commercial district (centered on Broadway and 47th St) boasts finely detailed, sumptuous Spanish architecture. It’s rich with public art and sculptures. Check out the Spanish Bullfight Mural (Central St) and the Fountain of Neptune (47th St & Wornall Rd).
- Crossroads Arts District (www.kccrossroads.org): Some 60 galleries fill the old warehouse district around Baltimore and 20th Sts, just south of downtown. The monthly First Friday event, a wine-soaked, community-wide open house, is a prime time to visit. Seek out Blue Gallery (www.bluegalleryonline.com), a welcoming space that shows emerging artists.
- 39th St West: Kansas City’s funkiest ’hood is a strip of hemp shops, boutiques and lots of ethnic eateries. Prospero’s Books (www.prosperosbookstore.com) sets the mood with its used tomes, live poetry and occasional bands.
- Westport (www.westportkcmo.com): Alluring locally owned restaurants and bars brim in this district centered on Westport Rd just west of Main St.
For more information on Kansas City, go to www.VisitKC.com.