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Beyond Brisket: Kansas City Travel Guide

Kansas City Historic District

This post is brought to you by Expedia.  All the recommendations and experiences below are my own.

Meal to meal is how I tend to travel. I'm always eager to stroll through art museums, wander in parks, and linger in coffee shops, but I also want to know, more urgently, where I'll be eating.

Traveling this way serves two purposes. First, and most practically, it keeps me nourished on the road when I'm not cooking in my own kitchen, and second, it allows me to get to know a town through what I experience on the plate.

Andrew and I found ourselves in Kansas City recently to attend his sister's wedding, so we decided to make the most of it and go on a mini food tour. Although our time was limited between wedding festivities and I didn't have the chance to do enough research for a full literary city guide, we ate well and discovered plenty of gems worth a visit when you find yourself in this charming midwestern town.


The Filling Station. Andrew went for the coffee, but I was lured by the juice bar and banana bread. The larger outpost on McGee Trafficway has more on the menu, but the smaller, drive-through option in Westport is in the same parking lot as Half Price Books, if you're looking for a place to browse for a gently used souvenir. 

Timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’
— John Steinbeck, East of Eden

Thou Mayest. Any coffee shop that takes its name from the pages of literature is a perfect literary destination. Built in 1904 and nestled where Kansas City's automotive businesses set up shop in the 1930's, the building is full of charm, as well as ample seating on two levels. You'll also find homemade pop tarts in the pastry case, and an upstairs patio for warm weather days. 

Oddly Correct Coffee Roasters. We didn't visit the storefront, but many of the city's top coffee shops brew Oddly Correct. If you'd like to check out the source, find them on Main Street in the Westport neighborhood.


Bluestem Kitchen

Bluestem. With one free evening for dinner, we made it count. Chef Colby Garrelts and his wife Megan opened Bluestem in 2004, and the restaurant recently took home a James Beard Award for Best Midwestern Chef. The atmosphere is refined but cozy, and if you enjoy food as a spectator sport, the open kitchen is fun to keep an eye on.

The seasonal tasting menu was at its peak of summer freshness, including one of my favorite dishes of the evening, gazpacho consommé. A clear broth was poured over radishes, heirloom tomatoes, and herbs, offering a surprising lightness that tasted exactly like the thicker, pureed gazpacho's you often see this time of year. It was the most refreshing way to begin our meal that also included scallops with fresh pasta, seared brisket, and goat cheese foam for dessert. 

After finishing our five course menu, we walked up to the counter and thanked the chefs, which led to several barbecue recommendations (see below). 

Joe's Bar-B-Que. When in Rome, or in this case, Kansas City, it's worth seeking out a plate of ribs and brisket. When we asked Bluestem's chef's for their recommendations, Joe's was at the top of the list (followed by Gates). Once I accepted the reality that the barbecue sauce was filled with high fructose corn syrup, I loved the popular Z-Man sandwich, filled with tender brisket, provolone cheese, and onion rings. Shockingly, they have a vegetarian version with mushrooms, if you're so inclined!

Joe's Bar-B-Que, Kansas City
Brisket and ribs at Joe's, Kansas City

Smokin' Guns BBQ. Although we didn't eat here, it's worth mentioning for its competition style barbecue. When we picked Bluestem chef Andrew Longres's brain for recommendations, he also explained the differences between competition and restaurant style barbecue's, a great tip for any novice. Competition barbecue is developed to knock your socks off in one bite, because when it's being judged that's all you have to make an impression. For the average eater, this means it can be sweeter/saltier/bolder, so it's good to know the differences heading into a meal. Smokin' Guns is no stranger to accolades, and has taken home top prizes in national and global competitions.

Little Freshie. It's a coffee shop, lunch spot, and soda fountain all in one very small package. Tucked on a quiet tree-lined street in downtown's historic core, I couldn't resist trying a little bit of everything. First we enjoyed sandwiches at the windowsill, then ordered a snow cone (raspberry rose for me) and soda (banana cardamom for Andrew). They also sell an assortment of curated food magazines, chocolate bars, teas, greeting cards, and other goodies perfectly sized to tuck into your carry on for the trip home.


American Jazz Museum. Kansas City's jazz scene began in the 1930s, and being fans we took the opportunity to walk the streets where Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and Count Basie played in local clubs (many of the original signs are on display inside the museum). The exhibit space is relatively small, but offers lots of great insights into the personal histories of jazz's famed musicians, and ample opportunities to listen to music and mix your own songs through interactive stations.

Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. The stately building and surrounding grounds are worth admiring before you even step foot inside. With more than 35,000 works of art, there's something for everyone, and if you're looking to enjoy an afternoon glass of wine, the restaurant was designed to resemble a 15th century Italian courtyard.

Feast Magazine. While slurping my snow cone at Little Freshie, I opened a copy of Feast Magazine stacked at the edge of the counter. It was filled with quality restaurant recommendations, chef profiles, seasonal recipes, and stories about the midwest's local food culture. If you spot one, grab a copy to read!

City of Fountains. Kansas City is known for its fountains, so don't miss them scattered around the city! The first fountain was built in 1904, and the city is home to nearly 50 today.