There is so much to do and see in Kansas City that it can’t be contained to one weekend. If you try to split yourself between a Chiefs/Royals game, Worlds and/or Oceans of Fun, IKEA, and sampling some of the city’s famous barbecue, you’ll get burnt out quickly and won’t fully experience all KC has to offer. It’s best to experience Kansas City in chunks, fully digesting one section before moving on to the next.
The Plaza is not to be missed. Comprised of more than 100 shops and 30 restaurants in 15 blocks, this district has something for everyone. The shopping options are expansive, but followers of this blog probably care about one thing: the eats.
After spending a few weekends in the Plaza, I got a good feel for some of the district’s top options. I won’t pretend I ate at all 30 restaurants, so this isn’t exactly a definitive guide. But if you do venture to the Plaza, here are some joints to keep in mind.
Barbecue: Jack Stack
Jack Stack brings a different style of barbecue to Kansas City, where most places adopt the order-at-the-counter approach. But Jack Stack, much like the newer Q39, takes a traditional stance, having diners seated and waited on by servers.
It’s a formula that’s served them well. While many barbecue joints embrace the hole-in-the-wall, low-key aspect of barbecue, Jack Stack pivots and celebrates a more high-end experience. It has low lighting and a fancier ambience and, while the service is still quick, it embraces more of a sit-down experience than a grab-and-go feel of some other local favorites.
Smoked jalapeno cheddar cornbread
No meal at Jack Stack is complete without an appetizer of smoked jalapeno cheddar cornbread, the best version of the Southern staple I’ve ever had. It arrives piping hot in a mini cast iron skillet, which forms a solid crust on the outside and keeps all the flavor trapped within. The dish comes with a honey butter which is delicious but completely unnecessary. The cornbread can speak for itself. Its texture is the perfect balance of soft and dense, the sweetness levels are on point and the cheese… oh the cheese. You know how when you reach for a gooey slice of pizza and it creates those wonderful cheese pulls as it separates from the rest of the pie? That’s what happens with this cornbread, and the sharpness of the cheedar permeates every bite. It’s warm, a bit gooey and sweet enough without the butter, though that is delicious too.
With all respect to Phat Jack’s and even the great Joe’s Kansas City, the burnt ends were the best I’ve had. They’re weren’t quite fall-apart tender as many renditions are, but the bark is so packed with smoky flavor. There’s a brilliant smoke ring on each brisket cube.
Pork spare ribs
The spare ribs are cooked to perfection. They’re not fall-off-the-bone, which so many incorrectly claim is the best style. They’re tender and pull gently off the bone, and the texture is on point. The char is absolutely brilliant and gives each bite a nice crust. There’s a scattering of sauce on top, but these ribs don’t need any extra flavor.
The brisket was just OK. It wasn’t bad by any means, but it’s a bit floppy and lacks the smoky crust of the other meats. The surprising standout is the vegetable kabob, comprised of plump mushrooms, peppers, onions, zucchini and a sawed-off corn cob. Though a slight butter application helps, the grilling that allows these veggies to release their flavor and really sing.
Jack Stack is definitely more upscale and maybe a little more expensive than most of KC’s barbecue offerings, but it’s worth it. The menu also features beef and lamb ribs, shrimp, trout and steak, not to mention a number of sandwiches. This place does come with a warning – it fills up fast, so make a reservation, get there early or be prepared to wait. Even if you have to settle for the latter option, it’s worth it.
Upscale Dining: Seasons 52
Wood-grilled boneless rainbow trout
There are plenty of fine dining options in the Plaza, including Brio Tuscan Grille, Fogo de Chao, Gram & Dunn and McCormick & Schmick’s. I can’t comment on most of these places outside of saying that the menus look fantastic, but I can absolutely recommend Seasons 52, a restaurant that prides itself on using local ingredients, so much so that the menu drastically changes depending on the season.
The menu is filled with amazing options, including salads, seafood, meatloaf, chicken and steaks. The “sea” choices are downright spectacular. The rainbow trout is cooked perfectly, as each bite of tender, flaky flesh pulls off just right. The grill marks add nice texture, and the accompanied tartar sauce really set things off.
Caramelized grilled sea scallops
Then there are the caramelized sea scallops, which are mind-blowingly tender. They’re so luscious and buttery, you barely have to chew them at all. The slightly sweet flavor is incredible, and combining them with the corn risotto is a real treat.
Lump crab, roasted shrimp and spinach stuffed mushrooms
All the appetizers are tempting, especially the duck wing lollipops and sweet corn and ricotta ravioli. I can confirm the stuffed mushrooms are tremendous. The shrimp provide most of the flavor, but the spinach and mushrooms add a fresh boost. The crab is mostly lost, but this is absolutely a home run appetizer.
Belgian chocolate s’more
The desserts are fun, inventive and light enough to prevent feelings of regret that come with most post-meal offerings. Seasons stuffs a tall shot glass with cake, mousse and other ingredients to create creme brulee, pecan pie, raspberry red velvet and other flavored desserts. The Belgian chocolate s’more is perfectly indulgent. The mousse, which is peppered with mini marshmallows, packs plenty of chocolate, as does the fluffy cake at the bottom of the glass. The graham cracker adds the crunch of a traditional s’more, and the toasted marshmallow on top brings memories of the traditional campfire treat.
New Old Fashioned
The drinks stand out as well. I’m a huge fan of an Old Fashioned, and Seasons’ take on the drink is downright delicious. The Breaker Craft Bourbon provides the dominant flavor, bringing a combination of vanilla, cinnamon and smoke. The apple bitters provide tang, but it’s the cherry heering that infuses the entire drink with the brilliant tart pop of a cherry. For nostalgia’s sake, Seasons tosses in a stick of rock candy, which adds a bit of extra sweetness if left to dissolve inside the drink.
The atmosphere is professional yet approachable, as we saw diners in suits and basketball shorts alike. The low lighting provides an upscale feel, and the prices are more than reasonable for this type of restaurant. Our waitress was attentive, knowledgable of the menu and incredibly friendly – she even comped our desserts because she said we were a fun table. Maybe she was just fishing for a bigger tip (if so, it worked), but it only reinforced the greatness of the Seasons 52 experience.
Husker Bar: The Granfalloon
I was a bit skeptical when some of my Twitter followers told me The Granfalloon was the place to be to watch a Nebraska football game. I didn’t doubt my followers’ advice, but I didn’t expect a rousing crowd as the Huskers took the field for the first game of the Scott Frost era.
I was wrong to doubt. The place was jam packed full of Red-clad patrons 45 minutes before kickoff, serenading the bar with “Go Big Red!” chants. The roar was deafening as Nebraska took the field… then it quickly subsided after the game was delayed (and eventually postponed) due to weather concerns. There’s even a menu item called “Huskers Beef Stew”.
But it was still a lot of fun, and you don’t have to be a Nebraska fan to enjoy The Granfalloon. A spacious bar with plenty of TVs, strong drinks and friendly bartenders, this would be a great place to post up on an NFL Sunday or during one of the first days of March Madness.
Butcher’s Table pizza
The menu is mostly comprised of bar staples such as burgers, tacos, salads, sandwiches and wings. The Granfalloon does allow diners to expand their horizons beyond traditional pub grub, with pork chops, crab cakes, salmon and shrimp fettuccine also available.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with sticking to the classics, starting with the Butcher’s Table pizza, a 10-inch oval topped with Italian sausage, pepperoni, ham, bacon and sweet peppers. All the pork products play their part, infusing the dish with salty, fatty flavors. The sausage and peppers add a touch of sweetness, as does the tasty red sauce. The mozzarella cheese holds everything together, and the crust is sturdy and airy. It’s not exactly artisan pizza, but it’s far superior to most bar options.
Pulled brisket tacos
The pulled brisket tacos look incredibly disappointing when they first arrive. The corn tortillas appear sad and floppy and a goopy red salsa tops each taco. But the protein is what matters, and this brisket delivers. To be clear, this isn’t premier barbecue brisket by any means, but it’s excellent for bar food. The tortillas are flavorful but wimpy and quickly tear and crack under the mound of brisket. I found it handy to discard the shells altogether and mix the brisket with the provided jasmine-cilantro rice, creating a delicious mini rice bowl.
Burnt end nachos
The burnt end nachos sound great on paper, but they suffer the same problem almost every restaurant dish does – instead of evenly distributing the ingredients, The Granfalloon loads them all on top. This creates 8-10 awesome bites, but leaves the lower chips naked and disappointing. The chips are grocery store quality and the cheese is of the standard nacho variety. The fresh jalapeños add some kick, and the burnt ends are passable enough. I don’t think our dish had any of the promised ghost-chili ground beef or green chile chicken. While it was large and perfect for sharing, I have a hard time recommending it.
That being said, The Granfalloon is overall a fun and positive experience. Most of the food is quite good, the atmosphere is warm and welcoming, the bartenders are helpful and engaging and the drinks pack some punch. Should you find yourself in the Plaza on a Nebraska game day, I can’t imagine there are many better places to cheer on the Huskers.
Skip It: Classic Cup Cafe
Pacific Northwest Benedict
Don’t be fooled by the crowded patio and long lines on a weekend morning. The Classic Cup Cafe is my one regret of our Plaza trip. Its brunch menu promised great things but resulted in a great letdown.
Classic Cup provides all the breakfast staples, including pancakes, omelettes and biscuits and gravy. Along with a traditional eggs Benedict, Classic Cup offers a crab cake version and the Pacific Northwest, featuring smoked salmon. The salmon itself is pretty good. It’s very salty, just as smoked salmon should be, and hold a firm texture. The eggs are overcooked and don’t bring that wonderful ooze of yolk when you cut into them.
The hollandaise sauce is creamy and fatty, just as one would hope, and it doesn’t drown the dish. This is a solid meal, but there’s nothing really special about it, and it’s not worth the boatload of calories. The home fries have a solid crispy texture, but they’re nearly flavorless unless coated with salt and pepper or Cholula sauce.
Far worse is the Egg Sandwich. The bacon is the one saving grace to this dish. The two large strips are bursting with flavor and are perfectly crispy. If judged by the bacon alone, this would be a standout option.
Unfortunately, everything else falls flat. The scrambled eggs are again overcooked and bring to mind the sad, plastic-like servings at a hotel breakfast bar that have been sitting under a heat lamp for two hours. The raw onion adds a nice bite, but caramelizing the veggies would have been a far smarter move. And the bread is downright pathetic. It’s just store-brand carbs lightly toasted. It quickly becomes soggy and limp. One could make something better at home with no effort at all. I almost never leave food on my plate as a restaurant, but I opted out on the toast. It’s just wasted calories.
Corner Cup has a vibrant atmosphere and the food arrives very quickly. There’s plenty of seating, including two outdoor patios with ideal shading. But our meals were average at best and they, along with one coffee, cost us nearly $40. That’s nearly robbery, and I would recommend staying away from this tourist trap.
Bonus: Joe’s Kansas City
Z-Man sandwich and chicken gumbo
So Joe’s Kansas City is nowhere near the Plaza. In fact, the closest location is about a 20-minute drive.
I don’t care. I’m recommending it anyway. The barbecue is so on point I’d drive hours for it.
As previously detailed, the ribs and burnt ends are both fabulous. But Joe’s KC’s calling card is the Z-Man sandwich, which packs slow-smoked brisket, two giant onion rings and provolone cheese between a hefty Kaiser roll. There’s a good reason about half the Joe’s KC orders include a Z-Man. All the flavors play together so well. The brisket is phenomenal on its own, but the tender meat plays well with the contrasting crunch of the onion rings. The cheese adds a gooey element that seals the whole dish together, and the bun is strong enough to keep all the meat and cheese from dissolving into a gooey mess. It’s near perfection.
Rocket Pig sandwich
I thought we’d reached the pinnacle of barbecue sandwiches with the Z-Man, but Joe’s KC recently added a new contender to the menu: the Rocket Pig. Lucious pulled pork is mixed with a sweet and spicy sauce, topped with enough crispy bacon to sink the Titanic, pepperjack cheese, BBQ mayo and fried jalapeños.
Everything just works. The pork is salty and tender. The bacon and jalapeños add the desired crispy element, and the light application of mayo applies a cooling element that balances the heat from the sauce and jalapeños. I’m not sure I can go so far as to say the Rocket Pig tops the Z-Man… but it’s at least in the discussion.
There you have it – a quick rundown of the offerings in the Plaza and overall KC area. It’s a wonderful area for tourists, and the food alone is worth a visit. But even if you post up in the Plaza, don’t be afraid to hop in the car and get out to Joe’s Kansas City.
You won’t regret it.