Taste and See KC!

Barbecue, jazz, art and a wealth of American history make this city a bucket-lister!

Kansas City skyline
Kansas City’s 100-year-old Union Station serves as a cultural hub of education and entertainment, including traveling national exhibits, films, restaurants and shops. Photo by Jonathan Tasler / Visit KC

The songsters of Oklahoma! got it right: “Everything’s up to date in Kansas City” — belts the baritone — and it’s still true today. The city (only a day’s drive from the Twin Cities) boasts a new streetcar line connecting the River Market area to Crown Center and Union Station two miles away, with hop-on/hop-off options to make visitors’ lives easy.

Best of all: It’s free.

I jumped on just a block from Hotel Indigo, a new chic makeover of a railroad office, sporting velvet fainting couches and a breakfast highlighting eggs benedict with crab cakes and asparagus. Then there’s the new-in-2011 Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, bordering the entertainment district called Power & Light, and the expanded — and famed — Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

The Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Visitors can access sites like this by using the city’s bike-share system known as BCycle. Photo courtesy of Visit KC

Inside the city

Catch the streetcar to the River Market. Outside the daily marketplace, weekends are prime time for farmers and vendors with food stalls ranging from Indian to Brazilian, beignets to cannoli, plus produce touted ardently by an Italian nonna as “sweet, lotta juicy.”

Peer into the Dutch Market for all things irresistibly tacky, including a towel declaring: “As a matter of fact, I was raised in a barn.”

Jump on the streetcar again to the Crossroads, the boho SoHo of the city, to explore its indie galleries and shops.

The Union Station stop is a three-for-one, starting with the station itself, vast as Grand Central and just as lively. Nearby Crown Center includes Hallmark’s 75-acre campus, where free tours spell out the story of the greeting card company launched in 1910 by farmboy J.C. Hall.

Across the street rises the iconic tower of the National World War I Museum — the only one in our nation — with a 360-degree view of the city. The museum is so mesmerizing that a ticket includes a repeat visit.

Enter via a transparent platform atop a field of poppies representing the war’s 9 million fatalities. Then join a tour (with newsreels), detailing weapons, news accounts, propaganda posters and warfare in the trenches — where each side lodged and stalemated for four dreadful years. Learn of many firsts — gas warfare, machine guns, bomb attacks, submarines. Accounts climax with the U.S. entry into the war’s final year, before a last exhibit, which asks, “Is peace possible?”

Art — from Claes to kitsch

A proposed expansion of the streetcar line may continue to Country Club Plaza, a shopping enclave built in the 1920s, in homage to Seville, Spain, with tiles and fountains galore. (In fact, this City of Fountains boasts a special foundation to support the structures’ complex upkeep.)

Nearby you’ll find The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, whose lawn sculptures include Claes Oldenburg’s enormous shuttlecocks (above). Bonus: A new gallery recently debuted to host a spectacular gift of 29 mostly Impressionist works donated from a private collection, including paintings by Renoir, Degas, Matisse, Van Gogh and more, interwoven with the museum’s existing collection. A gallery of Native American artworks awaits, too.

New this spring is The Big Picture, showcasing the Hall family’s donations and Hallmark collection of photos, ranging from the historic works of Steichen and Lange to more modern shots by Diane Arbus and Cindy Sherman.

An Uber hop from the plaza leads to the National Museum of Toys and Miniatures, which can be captured in one word — enthralling (adult visitors far outnumber kids). It’s the result of two women — one an antique toy buff, the other a fine-scale miniature enthusiast — combining their elite collections.

Each of the miniatures is exactingly built on a 1:12 scale: Peer at a candle the size of a pin, tiny doors with tinier hinges, miniscule drawers that open, and a cello strung with human hair. Continue upstairs to admire playthings throughout history, including Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs and Cracker Jack prizes, plus dolls from Barbie and Raggedy Ann to Victorian babes with ceramic heads. In the gift shop, find classics like marbles and tiddlywinks.

Museum at Prairiefire

Explore local history

A vibrant slice of KC history is celebrated at the historic 18th & Vine jazz district — an intersection at the heart and soul of the city’s black community, especially during the heyday of the Thirties.

Today it hosts two side-by-side attractions — the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the American Jazz Museum. The leagues flourished from the 1920s to the 1950s when teams like the famed KC Monarchs showcased great black players who — due to segregation — were forbidden in white enterprises.

Local Buck O’Neil made history as the first black coach in major leagues, joining the Chicago Cubs in 1962. KC Monarch Jackie Robinson famously integrated MLB team membership in 1947 — and those new opportunities put the Negro Leagues to rest.

The adjoining American Jazz Museum celebrates blacks who lived in or performed at 18th & Vine — Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Sarah Vaughan, to name a few.

A film recounts a later boycott of downtown establishments where blacks couldn’t try on clothes nor eat at lunch counters, a move that effectively ended that type of discrimination.

Get your eat (and drink) on! 

Nearby beckons Arthur Bryant’s, perhaps the most famed name in KC barbecue — well, to some: If you happen to wed a Gates Bar-B-Q fan, expect a family feud.

On this visit, I started at the classic standby — Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue at the Freight House, turning out hickory-smoked ribs and brisket in a gentrified setting. Today’s young heroes of the pit are challenging the old guard with contemporary tweaks on the process and product. Step into Q39, launched by a competition winner, to sample his oak-fired everything — ribs, pulled pork, brisket, those coveted burnt ends and — new — chipotle sausage, served with modern sides like apple-infused coleslaw and white bean cassoulet.

Char Bar turns trendy, too, by adding smoked jackfruit, prompting more than vegetarians to salivate. Add in updated slaws like carrot-raisin and kale-pecorino and you’re good to go.

EJ’s Urban Eatery, debuting near the river with a classically trained chef, offers ’cue aplenty, catfish and that Southern standby, a meat-and-three (choose one meat and three sides).

I demanded the primo brisket and burnt ends, sided by modern threes like Parmesan-squash casserole with biscuit crumbles, fried green tomatoes and (an irresistible fourth) bread pudding with warm Bourbon sauce.

Plowboys Barbecue is one of many hot spots for enjoying slow-cooked meats in Kansas City. Photo by Chris Mullins / Visit KC

But KC doesn’t live by smoke alone, not on your James Beard medals. Beard winner Michael Smith hits the jackpot with Med-Asian small plates at Extra Virgin. Go for the chicken steamed buns, Chinese style, or venture into the menu’s Odd Bits for duck tongue tacos or pig’s ear salad.

Miss the churro doughnuts, served with hot chocolate sauce, and you’ll be sorry.

Another Beard medalist, Corby Garrelts, has added Rye to his repertoire, explaining, “It’s food I grew up on. It’s actually OK to like these things again.”

Case in point is his best-selling fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, hush puppies and fried gizzards. Pies are another must, swear devotees of Megan Garrelt, his wife and the woman behind banana creams and lemon meringues here.

The Antler Room is a newbie showcasing small plates — carrot salad with lardo and hazelnut pesto; agnolotti pasta stuffed with chestnut cream; cavatelli noodles in a robust lamb ragu; and scallops with rutabaga schnitzel and red-eye gravy aioli. Black Dirt opened just weeks ago, but they’ve already got it pitch-perfect with small plates such as a Missouri Caesar (croutons of breaded fish); scallops paired with grapefruit and cauliflower; and duck fritters brushed with poblano cream.

Tom’s Town Distilling Co. not only conjures up classy cocktails in a Prohibition setting, but also offers tours (tastings follow) of its premier Bourbon, gin and vodka — reason enough to return.

Carla Waldemar is an award-winning food/travel/arts writer. She edits the annual Zagat Survey of Twin Cities restaurants and writes for publications around the world. She lives in Uptown.