Travel » National

Everything's Up to Date in Kansas City

by Kelsy Chauvin
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Jul 16, 2018

There's a buzz about Kansas City. For the past few months or even years, I've heard rumblings about this Midwestern metropolis that's considered an "emerging destination" for arts, for food, and LGBT culture. Rodgers and Hammerstein must have been ahead of the curve 50 years ago when they wrote, "Oklahoma!," which includes the lyrics:

I went to Kansas City on a Friday
By Saturday I learned a thing or two
But up 'till then I didn't have an idea
Of what the mod'rn world was comin' to.

In spite of their nod to KC, I admit I was skeptical. But eventually, my curiosity led me to discover Missouri's biggest city for myself.

Right away I felt welcome in Kansas City for two reasons. First, my initials are "K.C.," and seeing them plastered all over billboards, business names, bumper stickers, and bodies (from clothing to tattoos) is a great way to feel right at home.

Secondly, I visited during Kansas City Pride weekend, and surrounding myself with thousands of local queers instantly assured me that this town does indeed have a potent LGBTQ community.

KC Pride, held in early June, introduced me to lovely Berkley Riverfront Park on the Missouri River. It serves as a green space and festival grounds that ties into downtown's charming River Market neighborhood.

There's no march for KC Pride, so the festival's $10 entry (weekend packages are cheaper) is both a donation and the only way to join the revelry. Along with family-friendly activities, info booths, local-store pop-ups, and busy drink tents, the festival's showcase was a mainstage chock full of performances -- from local drag queens, choruses, dance troupes, and headliner Thelma Houston, one of my all-time favorite disco queens.

Sticky and Sweet, and Rainbow Heat

I flirted my way through the Pride crowd, on my way learning about July's Outskrts "LGBTQ" Festival and meeting cool, proud locals eager to tell me all about their town.

I used barbecue as my throughline. KC is famous for its "slow and low" smoked meats slathered with thick, sweet-tangy sauce. Naturally, there's a slew of great restaurants to choose from, but only a few were mentioned time and again. With a half-dozen locations, Gates BBQ is consistently ranked first. But its counter service is famously curt, so most locals advised me to have my order ready before walking in the door.

Char Bar is another top spot, and gay-owned, where the succulent BBQ is rivaled by its other hearty comfort-food (fried chicken, grits-filled hush puppies), plus a sprawling beer garden with lawn games. Veteran pitmaster Rob Magee helms the award-winning Q39 (a relative newcomer since its 2017 opening), serving up tender, juicy barbecue that may leave you breathless.

Both Char Bar and Q39 are in the happening neighborhood of Westport (aka Midtown), which is where I discovered most of KC's gay bars. The most famous is the always-friendly Missie B's, a neighborhood watering hole that's welcomed local queers to its piano bar, live stage shows, and late-night upstairs dance floor since 1994.
Bistro 303 (self-proclaimed as a "gay little bar and bistro") is a few blocks away and serves lovely brunch, lunch, and dinner, plus daily food specials and signature martinis.

If all the barbeque has inspired your Western flair, kick up your heels with a live show or line dancing among a lesbian-centric crowd at Side Kicks Saloon. To catch some of the state's top drag queens, don't miss Sunday brunch at Hamburger Mary's or its other near-nightly events like karaoke, bingo, and trivia.

From Culinary to Culture

Kansas City's local pride stretches beyond the LGBTQ community and through shops like Made in KC where you can browse clothes, housewares, letterpress goods, jewelry, even food and drinks made in "the Mo." (That's what locals call Kansas City, Missouri; as opposed to "KCK" across the river in Kansas.) The goods are mostly made through the Made in KC Creative Studios that's been a small-business anchor and incubator in the Crossroads neighborhood since 2015.

Crossroads is a lively district just outside of downtown that's home to many of the city's art galleries, as well as several nationally landmarked buildings. Every first Friday evening all year round, the neighborhood becomes a veritable street festival with bands playing in parking lots, artists selling their work from sidewalk tables, food trucks lining the streets, and streams of people browsing art exhibits.

I was glad to catch a First-Friday event and especially loved how well used the city's streetcar line and bike lanes are -- disproving my assumption that KC is strictly a driving city.

Following tips for more great art, I enjoyed the free Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, home to compact, engaging galleries as well as a delightful restaurant in Café Sebastienne. By comparison, the vast Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art seemed intimidating. But its collections were a trip highlight, especially its new "Big Picture" photography gallery and 20th-century permanent collection.

One of KC's most impressive features is the city's devotion to urban renewal. Union Station, for example, remains an active Amtrak station; but it's also a museum, event space, and home to a few standout restaurants like the classic Pierpont's, one of the city's best steakhouses.

Hotel Phillips is another prime example of an early 20th-century building that's now a chic, restored structure, and a great lodging option in downtown's Power & Light District. The 1931 building boasts incredible Art Deco details, comfortably modern rooms, a handsome lobby (with shuffleboard for guests); and below, the sexy P.S. Speakeasy that hosts live music on weekends to accompany smooth craft cocktails.

On my last day in town, I headed up to the central Liberty Memorial Park, home to the fascinating National World War I Museum and Memorial. From the hilltop overlook, I absorbed this fabulous city stretched out before me. I realized that I loved learning about Kansas City, a town I'm now a little crushed on. KC reminded me that no matter what I've heard or expect to find, I can never know a city without going there -- and sometimes it might leave you wanting more.

Kelsy Chauvin is a writer, photographer and marketing consultant based in Brooklyn, New York. She specializes in travel, feature journalism, art, theater, architecture, construction and LGBT interests. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @kelsycc.


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