Kansas City’s culinary and cocktail scene is exploding with a host of new independent restaurants and locally made spirits and brews. You can’t do it all in one night, but you might as well try. Today, we hop on over to Strawberry Hill in Kansas City, KS.
Stop 1: Chicago’s
A pint of Midwestern hospitality greets newcomers to this neighborhood bar in Strawberry Hill. The Root Beer Float is a staple – a down-the-hatch mix of Root Beer Schnapps, Coca-Cola, and Rolling Rock. It’s a little sweet and definitely a conversation starter. Owners Wes and Laura Summa, together with Laura’s cousin Danny Dumovich, have created an updated vision of the bar they fell in love with while they were dating.
Friendly and attentive bartenders hustle back and forth as the bar, which opened in 2013, fills with the after-work crowd that steps up to the footrest made of reclaimed bricks. Dollar bills line the ceiling and back bar, offering salty wisdom and proclamations of friendship (Sandra + Beth are BFFs). The walls of Chicago’s back room pay homage to musicians (the nightly playlist is everything from the Black Keys to Bob Dylan), local sports, and the building itself, which has been a host of drinking establishments.
Chicago’s has the soul of a craft beer bar (12 taps and rotating can specials), but the prices of a dive bar. By round two, you’ll notice the popcorn machine in the corner and the stack of red plastic baskets waiting to be filled. As the sun sets, the warm buzz of conversation will chase you out onto Central Avenue, where an alley cat or group heading in will nod their head and await your return.
Chicago's | 534 Central Avenue, Kansas City, KS | Facebook
Stop 2: Squeal Like a Pig BBQ
Only a block away from Chicago's, a red pig on a white sign acts like a barbecue bullseye. Slaps BBQ, which opened in 2014, often has a line out the door for lunch (the front door has a detailed map for how the line moves through the restaurant). Inside, the white walls feature a neon pig alongside competition barbecue plaques. Dinner is a more relaxed affair, where you’ll have an honest shot to have them stack a plate high with proper ribs and burnt ends before they sell out. [Editor’s Note: They’ll soon have more seating, courtesy of a covered patio as part of a planned extension into the space next door.]
Slaps BBQ cooks hot and fast on hickory and Missouri white oak in order to meet Kansas City’s seemingly inexhaustible hunger for barbecue. Pitmaster Joe Pearce, one of only a handful of restaurant pitmasters who still actively cooks on the competition barbecue circuit, runs Slaps with his brother, Mike.
You order at the wood-wrapped counter, where they slice ribs with ease and build sampler plates (brisket, pork, turkey and sausage) on brown butcher paper. Seasoned fries, golden fried hush puppies, and bread & butter pickles balance out most plates in the dining room. The table sauce, like the beans, is sweet with vinegar, tomato and a bit of heat from red pepper flakes. At Slaps, the bark is as good as the bite. And conversation? That will resume once dinner is over.
Slaps BBQ | 553 Central Avenue, Kansas City, KS | SlapsBBQKC.com
Stop 3: 403 Club
A sign just outside the door of Slap’s BBQ tells you to head one block north to the 403 Club. After a short walk -- where you’ll briefly consider breaking into your white to-go box from Slaps -- you’ll come to a low-slung white brick building with blue trim. You’d never imagine that there’s a pinball bar inside.
An electronic dartboard and pool table sit on either side of a collection of hi-boy tables, but the heart of the 403 Club is along the back wall. A bank of ten, ever-changing, classic and new release (like The Walking Dead) pinball machines pulse and beep an invitation to spend your laundry money. The machines are regularly waxed and cleaned and that’s why the 403 Club has been the site of the past two Kansas State Pinball Championship tournaments. Every First Saturday they play host to an officially endorsed pinball tournament.
Circular fans spin like playing cards in bicycle spokes, keeping the beat from the digital jukebox. The long wooden bar has a hot dog ferris wheel – a roller that also features an occasional tamale. But the 403 Club encourages you to bring your own food and on late nights, the bartenders or your fellow patrons might even share a piece of pizza. There’s a budding whiskey collection behind the bar; and they’ve also got six taps and a fridge that should be the envy of all beer geeks. All you have to do is pick a glass or tallboy, slot it in the holder on the side on a pinball machine, and see if you can break the joint’s high score.
403 Club | 614 Reynolds Avenue, Kansas City, KS | 403club.com
Photography: Chris Mullins