Kansas City, Missouri built its culinary reputation by slowly and patiently putting smoke to meat. Most culinary visitors stop to take sauce-stained selfies and photos of barbecue ribs stacked like dinosaur bones—and indeed, you can equip yourself quite nicely for a weekend living on only barbecue.
But those of us who live in Kansas City (as I have for the past seven years) have watched the local food scene grow, thanks to chefs who've moved back home following a tour of duty in another city. And there's a burgeoning coffee, beer, and spirits culture, too, so what is in your cup can be as great as what is on your plate.
While nearly every Kansas City joint with a smoker will sell you the entire barnyard, each barbecue spot has its own specialty that should be the start and end of your order. And KC has more than just barbecue to offer those who can find a little extra room in their stomachs. Consider this your guide to Kansas City's best meals.
For Breakfast: Happy Gillis
Breakfast in Kansas City will often test your strength with buttermilk biscuits the size of dinner plates buried beneath an avalanche of white sausage gravy. But the staple of Midwest diners gets a refined lift at Happy Gillis, the breakfast and lunch spot in a former grocer in the city's Columbus Park neighborhood.
Biscuits and gravy are simply B&G here (vegetarians can choose mushroom gravy). Opt for a half-order ($4) and dredge your Gillis Breakfast Sandwich ($7)—fluffy scrambled eggs, crisp bacon, and cheddar on toast—in the rich gravy dusted with black pepper and studded with pork sausage from the Local Pig, a butcher in KC's East Bottoms.
Owners Josh and Abbey-Jo Eans live above the restaurant with their children. There's a tidy little craft beer list (ask for whatever KC-based Boulevard Smokestack Series is available), and pastry chef Abbey-Jo makes all the scones and cookies in house.
Order at the counter in front of the flat top and then servers will bring out your breakfast to the formica tables inside or the black iron tables outside, which you'll be lucky to snag if it's sunny.
For Coffee: Oddly Correct
For the better part of the first year of its existence in 2011, this Midtown roaster and coffee shop didn't have a sign out front. People were simply pulled in by the quirky letterpress art (which decorates the walls and coffee bags) of owner Gregory Kolsto or the smell of single origin beans from Kenya or Costa Rica roasting.
The shop is known for not stocking cream or sugar for adding to pourover coffee because Kolsto wants to engage coffee drinkers in a dialogue about what is in their cup. They do have Shatto whole milk—the Osborn, Missouri, dairy is world renowned for its chocolate milk (which is widely available in local grocery stores)—for serving in lattes and cappuccinos.
The seating is all stools, which gives you a better view of the pourover bar. The baristas carry over hot coffee in a glass beaker with a white ceramic mug on a small wooden tray. When the weather is warm, order a hop toddy: cold brew coffee infused with hops. The drink arrives in a brown beer bottle, and the flavor works surprisingly well, with the earthy hops complementing the coffee's intrinsic floral notes.
Oddly's Coffee is also served at Quay Coffee (412 Delaware Street)—a hip shop in the River Market neighborhood.
For Pork Ribs: Danny Edwards
Smoke floats out over Southwest Boulevard directing the pick-up trucks to Danny Edwards Boulevard BBQ as surely as the large neon arrow on the front of the building or the pink pig statue that watches over the parking lot.
Once you're inside, odds are that Danny Edwards himself is behind the counter to assemble your order. Edwards learned the barbecue trade from his father Jake and started out with Little Jake's, an 18-seat hole in the wall downtown before moving to the Boulevard in 2007.
What you want is the pork spare ribs ($12.99) smoked on hickory wood. The long-end pork ribs (short end and rib tips are also available) are meaty without being dry. The peppery ribs are tender, but still require you (properly) to use your teeth to get them off the bone. Get the sweet potato fries as well. They are hand-cut and salty with crispy strips of skin still attached. Both the ribs and fries should be liberally doused with the house barbecue sauce, which gets its heat from mustard and chili powder and its sweet from ketchup and brown and white sugar.
For Burnt Ends: LC's Bar-B-Q
Kansas City barbecue's signature dish is burnt ends—the fatty ends of the brisket that are sent back into the smoker for a second pass to develop a crust on the exterior known as bark. At LC's the beef is rubbed with dry garlic and salt and then smoked on hickory wood—if you hang around long enough, you'll see them trundling the wood across the parking lot in grey trash barrels on wheels.
The burnt ends ($8.99) come stacked on pieces of white bread. Each roughly cut chunk has varying degrees of that crunchy bark, which is a salty counterpunch to the tomato-based sauce with a vinegar finish. The meat is juicy and tender, enrobed in crisp bark. The contrast is something like what you'd find in great crusty bread. While some burnt ends overwhelm you with fat or smoke, LC's find the right balance between the two. The sauce hand is heavy behind the counter, so order your burnt ends 'dry' if you want to sauce it yourself. As for sides, the baked beans are thick and sweet with molasses and the fries, gloriously dipped in lard, are like potato harmonicas.
LC's has fewer than a dozen tables, in large part because most of the customers are taking their barbecue to go. If you decide to stay, you'll dine amid trophy fish mounted to plaques on the wall and a thin plume of grey smoke that appears when the pit doors stamped with the initials 'LC' are opened. You'll leave with a bit of that smoke still on you like a free barbecue souvenir.
For Creative BBQ in a Gas Station: Oklahoma Joe's
They still sell gas at the Shamrock station where the original of three Oklahoma Joe's locations is nestled inside. But the cars in the parking lot belong to folks who are waiting in the barbecue line that regularly snakes out the door. The smokers out back, Bessie, Wilbur, and Smokie, use white oak to transform pork butts into succulent Carolina-style pulled pork.
The pork is part of Oklahoma Joe's identity—a signifier that while owner Jeff Stehney knows he is in the barbecue heartland, he's also willing to venture beyond from the standards ribs, turkey, ham, and sausage on KC menus. (Though you'll find those meats, too.) Stehney's finest experiment is the Z-man sandwich ($6.99)—brisket topped with smoked provolone and a pair of crispy, golden onion rings on a kaiser roll. The crunch of the rings and mellow cheese marry well with the moist beef brisket, which comes apart with a gentle pull.
The fries are beloved because of the seasoning (now sold in bottles) that gets its savory character from dehydrated beef broth. Add on a cup of the smoked chicken gumbo, a spicy bowl of rice and chopped okra with large chunks of chicken. Cool the fire with a Boulevard Pale Ale—the Kansas City beer pairs well with barbecue, cutting nicely through the smoke and heat.
For Beef Ribs: Fiorella's Jack Stack Barbecue
Barbecue sauce and white tablecloths don't typically mix, but the laundry bills haven't shut down Fiorella's Jack Stack Barbecue in 40 years of business. If you're walking on the Plaza, all you have to do is look for the metal bull sculpture that stands watch over this barbecue joint.
The tender hickory-smoked beef ribs here are the star. The size of a keyboard wrist rest, they come slathered with a sweet and tangy sauce. Jack Stack also serves up delicate lamb ribs and Crown Prime beef ribs with sumptuous marbling. For those concerned with the possibility of a meat coma, they also offer salmon, shrimp, and trout grilled over hickory.
The sides are no afterthought at Jack Stack. The onion rings are saucer-sized, breaded in cracker meal and then fried to a perfect golden brown. The cheesy corn bake is a gooey spoonful of cream cheese and sharp cheddar that enrobes the corn kernels and smoked chopped ham bits.The Kansas City combo ($18.95) will net you two kinds of ribs and a taste of the burnt end-studded baked beans. The nap at your hotel afterwards is free.
For BBQ Brisket: Arthur Bryant's
The red and white awning of Arthur Bryant's is a few blocks from Kansas City's famed Jazz District. The photos on the wall tell you that you're not the first to make this pilgrimage, but you'll forget the celebrities when you grab your own plate and silverware and stand before the oak and hickory-fueled pit. In front of the flames stand men ready to pile your plate with thick cords of beef brisket with dark peppery bark. Skip the burnt ends. They may have once made Calvin Trillin swoon, but they now come drenched in sauce and require a bit too much chew.
The beef sandwich ($9.55) is enough for two, but if you're sharing you should just get a pound of meat ($12.75). Then you can mix in pulled or sliced pork, beef, and sausage. They'll even sell you half loaves or full loaves of bread if you're thinking about a picnic.
At the table, Bryant's original sauce—one of the few that has the tart, dominant punch of vinegar in the city—is the one you want. The beers come in frosty mugs, but if you want the true barbecue experience, ask for a bright red, sweet bomb of strawberry soda.
Arthur Bryant's a good place to fuel up before heading over to the 18th and Vine Historic Jazz District where the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is located.
For a Quick Lunch: Kitty's Cafe
This Midtown spot has been serving American fare for 60 years, but regulars know to order the pork loin sandwich ($5.20). It's stuffed with a triple stack of pork tenderloin slices that are tempura-fried until golden brown, served smartly atop a bed of lettuce, tomato, pickles, and raw white onion. Ask for the hot sauce, then each bite will light up your taste buds with heat, salt, and sweetness. You may want to call ahead and grab your sandwich to go since there's only a handful of stools inside. A note: Kitty's is cash only.
The Nelson-Atkins museum is worth a visit just a six minute drive away. Unwrap your sandwich in front of the oversized shuttlecocks that dot the sculpture garden and when you're done snapping photos, go inside (admission is free) and see the Bloch Building addition.
More lunch options: If you're looking to sit down, snag a seat at the square wooden bar that runs the length of James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Smith's Extra Virgin. Grab a plate of tapas that feature lesser known barnyard parts like duck tongue tacos or crispy pig ear salad. If you're craving the flavor of smoke without the heaviness of barbecue, El Pollo Rey (901 Kansas Avenue, Kansas City, Kansas) will sell you either a whole chicken or a half chicken with tangy pickled onions, rice and warm corn tortillas. Throw in $1 for an avocado you slice yourself.
For Snow Cones and Sodas on a Hot Day: Little Freshie
Little Freshie—a sleek espresso bar and soda fountain on the West Side—began as Shasta teardrop trailer serving Fresher Than Fresh Snow Cones in a pocket-sized park. Owner Lindsay Laricks' innovative flavor combinations, such as lemon prickly pear and pineapple Serrano pepper, marry sweet and heat beautifully. The two-year-old shop lets the snow cones and fizzy sodas ($3.25) do the talking.
The crunchy ice crystals of the snow cone rest in a small pool of syrup, ensuring that you'll get the subtle herbal notes of the blackberry lavender in the first and last bite.The spicy ginger fizz, builds in intensity as you sip it through a barber pole-striped paper straw. On the run? Take an almond butter, cheddar, and granny smith apple sandwich and a green tea-pear snow cone with you as fuel for the rest of the day.
For Beer: Cinder Block Brewery
Kansas City is now a destination for great beer. After you take a tour of Boulevard Brewing Company, venture north of the river to the Cinder Block Brewery, which opened in a predominantly industrial area in October 2013.
Owner Bryce Schaffter is usually there and will give an impromptu tour of the brew house. One wall of the tasting room is lined with wine and spirits barrels where beer is aging. Snag a flight ($8) of six brews or order the Weathered Wit, a Belgian style wheat beer that is a bit tart with a citrusy finish. They also brew a nice crisp cider.
Beer crawl: Just a 15-minute walk from Cinder Block, you'll find the Big Rip Brewing Co., whose offerings are mostly named for science fiction icons. Try their flagship, Hathor's Sweet Brown, a smooth, creamy ale. There's also the Kansas City Bier Company, a German-style beer hall. They import German malt and hops for the beers they brew. Their helles is a light and refreshing, just right for a summer night.
For Happy Hour Snacks: Bluestem
The first restaurant from James Beard Award winner Colby Garrelts and his wife Megan Garrelts (they also own Rye—an upscale take on Midwestern fare—in Leawood, Kansas), got a facelift in 2014 after 10 years in the Westport neighborhood. The white tablecloths are gone and the space has been opened up to allow people to see into both the savory and pastry kitchen.
Between 5 and 6:30 p.m., sidle up to the sleek glass bar. Order the beef tartare ($8) served on a crostini or the shrimp and grits ($10). Cheesy and warm with peppery shrimp, it's a comforting plate. Whether they're offering pie or a fruit cobbler, save room for a slice or square.
Dinner Date: The Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange
In the Crossroads district of Kansas City, The Rieger is writing a regular love letter to pork. The restaurant, which has a speakeasy in its basement (the entrance to Manifesto is in the alley behind), still has the penny tiled floor from the historic hotel that once stood at this address.
Start with pork soup ($7 for a bowl)—a layered concoction of Gruyere, pork confit, and chicharron, or a mini pork tenderloin ($7)—chef Howard Hanna's nod to Kitty's Cafe. A delicate tempura-fried pork loin sandwich with pickled red onion, butter lettuce, radish, and herb mayo. The crunchy pork loin is well met by the richness of the mayo and the pop of vinegar.
The dinner menu also features house-cured meats, sheep's milk cheese from Green Dirt Farms, and innovative uses of offal and marrow. The restaurant shares bartenders with the speakeasy downstairs, meaning the cocktails are well-balanced and the house made sodas—the ginger ale in particular—are inspired.
After dinner, plan to take your date to the Kauffman Center nearby. It's a world-class concert hall. Or head to Julep...
For Cocktails: Julep
Julep is a proper whiskey bar with an excellent drink list. Tucked a block away from the noisier drag of the bars in Westport, husband and wife duo Keely Edgington and Beau Williams (former head bartender at the Kansas City speakeasy Manifesto) opened their watering hole named for the classic crushed ice drink.
Grey-vested bartenders are in constant motion behind the bar, occasionally climbing the sliding ladder in order to grab a bottle from shelves that stretch to the ceiling. The whiskey-centric bar has a trio of juleps on the menu made with three different base spirits—cognac, bourbon, and rum—and a cold-steeped mint syrup. Gin-drinkers should opt for the Garden & Gun ($11), a bright and lightly floral cocktail made with Hendrick's gin, honey, lavender, lemon, and orange bitters.
There are snacks, too, taking their cue from Southern staples with peel and eat shrimp, pimento cheese, and rotating flavors of deviled eggs.
For Late Night Eats: Town Topic
If you stay out long enough in Kansas City, you'll end up at Town Topic. The good news is you won't be alone. The downtown hamburger spot, which opened in 1937, shines like a beacon in the late night hours. The waitresses will call you 'Honey' without irony and serve up diner fare all night long.
Step up to the formica counter and ask for a double with cheese ($3.85), matchstick french fries, and a milkshake with the thickness to keep your straw aloft. The 2 ounce patties are made from 80/20 ground chuck, giving them a bit of grease that is pleasantly absorbed by the soft buns. Add on grilled onions. The smell alone is incentive enough, but they're cooked directly on the patties with craveable results.