(From early November) Reality set in as we drove home to Iowa from Bentonville. Our balmy weather suddenly turned cold and rainy. We listened to too much news about our awful current president denying the results of the election that booted him. And his awful Republican enablers. We also were clearly heading back into major Covid spread territory in Iowa.
But I am cheered by Biden’s steady leadership and ability to withstand Trump’s provocations. We stopped in the small Missouri town of Adrian to pick up a late lunch in Pecan country (and apparently in Trump country too,judging from the yard signs). We were the only folks wearing masks at Byrd’s Pecan Delights. fortunately we were also almost the only people in there. Not to be confused with Byrd’s Hoot Owl Pecans (great name), a farmers market in nearby Butler, Mo. Solid sandwich fare (chicken salad with, yes, pecans; a BLT) and bought some candied pecans for gifts and a slice of incredibly sweet chocolate pecan pie. Stopped at Gates in Kansas City for ribs to go and Dirck’s receipt came up with a STAR on it so he got a $10 bill. Only took 35 years of Gates visits to get that lucky! before we left Bentonville, we took me more bike ride, ending up for coffee at The Meteor, a cool little place in a bike shop near the Momentary. (Another one nearby is called theairport.)
As a travel writer (and as a traveler), I seek out the places that feel emblematic of the place I’m visiting, with a storied history and local cuisine, with atmosphere, character and grit. Some of those places, sadly, have been felled by the pandemic as I learned in a NYTimes story yesterday. Oddly, we drove past The Rieger restaurant in Kansas City during a day trip there on Saturday and vowed to return once we can to eat at a place that not only had inventive food but allegedly a bathroom that gangster Al Capone once peed in. Sadly it is no more, as the NYTimes story reported. I had been to three of the nine restaurants mentioned in the story – including the Brookville Hotel in Abilene and the Cake Cafe in New Orleans.
I first went to the Brookville Hotel – which specialized in fried chicken and biscuits – in the mid-1980s when I lived in Wichita. The 1.5 hour drive to the tiny worn town of Brookville was worth it, to eat in the old tumbledown hotel that was mostly (or maybe completely) a restaurant by that time. I took many a visitor there as well, since it was so evocative of old time Kansas. A lot of atmosphere was lost when the restaurant moved to a faux hotel recreation on the edge of Interstate 70 in Abilene but the chicken and biscuits were still great. Our memory is the wait staff only asked two questions: What kind of salad dressing do you want? What do you want to drink? Otherwise the order was chicken and biscuits.
I wandered into the Cake Cafe a few years ago while exploring the Marigny and Bywater districts. It was a cheerful alternative feeling coffee house, painted yellow on a quiet corner. Very cozy and they were advertising their NOLA-classic King Cakes with the little plastic baby in them. I had only an orange juice, resisting the tempting pastries (which I now regret) and sat outside, back in the pre-pandemic days when you didn’t do this for your health and safety.
The pandemic has caused so much devastation – first and foremost, deaths and lasting health consequences for people, but also devastation to businesses and livelihoods, some that make a place distinctive. On a happier note, we did get carryout at two Kansas City classics that appear to be hanging in there — ribs from Gates BBQ and a chicken dinner with cinnamon buns (not biscuits) at Stroud’s. We need to remember to keep patronizing these places, helping them to survive.
When we learned it would be 54 degrees in Kansas City, we were there. Turns out it was 59 degrees and so nice to have a change of scenery after a strange shut-in Christmas for two, pandemic-style. Hoping there will be more weekend days like this within a 3 to 4 hour drive of DSM during the next few months when otherwise, we are likely not going anywhere.
We had a scenic picnic at a pretty park high atop a bluff with a panoramic view of the city and Missouri/Kansas river confluence just east of the Quality Hill neighborhood , complete with WPA stonework and old concrete picnic tables and statues of Lewis & Clark and James Pendergast (we think father of big KC boss Tom).
The Nelson Atkins has an interesting photo exhibit of Muhammad Ali in London during a big fight in the 1960s, with photos by famous Kansan Gordon Parks. We got a timed ticket (free) to the museum online and found it comfortably (under) populated, everyone socially distanced and wearing masks. We spent much of our time outside, walking along a curving path along the top of the (not so) new wing, dotted with sculpture and little kids having a great time rolling down the grassy berms lining the grand lawn leading up to the imposing original museum with its grand columns. Cool new site specific squiggly stone wall by Andy Goldsworthy.
We discovered a new (to us) neighborhood with elegant homes —Hyde Park, just east of the Gates BBQ on Main. Janseen Place reminded me of Boston Blvd. in downtown Detroit. A short stretch of elegant old stone homes with an imposing entryway of columns. We also stumbled upon a beautifully restored tan brick building with spectacular terracotta reliefs and chic businesses including Billies Groceries (more a restaurant), a spa and boutique. Our car is full of carryout food from classic KC plates – ribs from Gates and chicken from Stroud’s.
We made an unexpected stop in Kansas City (en route to Bentonville Arkansas) soon after hearing the news that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were declared the winners of the 2020 presidential election. I had to find somewhere to get out of the car and dance and cheer. I found it at the big fountain in Mill Creek Park near The Plaza. About 35 of us stood in the warm sunshine (73 degrees on November 7) and cheered, danced and waved our hands and flags as cars drove by, honking their horns and people of all skin colors and ages thrust their arms and Biden-Harris flags in the air. Pure joy. Oh happy day and one that I have been dreaming of (and trying to make happen) for four years. P.S. picked up excellent rustic artisan bread (orchard, rosemary polenta) at Fervere bakery in Kansas City’s quality hill neighborhood.
We didn’t get too much time to hang out in Kansas (or Missouri) last weekend because the focus of our trip was attending the wedding of my niece Whitney in Manhattan, Kansas. But a family’s got to eat, right? So we stopped for lunch at Wheatfields in Lawrence, which was fairly quick in and out and had a solid selection of sandwiches (and excellent looking tomato soup). After a quick tour of his alma KU by Dirck, we drove another two hours to the Comfort Suites in Manhattan, which proved serviceable, as always. We stopped for coffee and iced tea at Arrow coffeehouse, where we also could have gotten cocktails as it doubles as a bar. The wedding was in Aggieville (the KState entertainment neighborhood), at a venue on Moro street next to…an offshoot of The Cozy Inn, the famous slider place in Salina, KS. (Who knew there was another Cozy Inn?) On the way home, after shopping for famous Kansas potato chips (Art & Mary’s) that we found out, sadly, no longer are made (Art & Mary went bankrupt about a year ago, we discovered), we ended up happily at Arthur Bryant’s. Emma, our pregnant daughter, was craving ribs and Rachel had never been to KC or for ribs (she was not long ago a vegetarian). One of the few things I’m not that keen on at Bryant’s is the sauce (yes, I know, the sauce is beloved by many). It’s too peppery. But we discovered Bryant’s offers two other sauces including, I believe, the President’s sauce, which – dare I say it – tasted much like the sweet and tangy sauce served by its competitor, Gates. We had hoped to go to Joe’s (formerly Oklahoma Joe’s) but found out it was closed on Sundays. Good to know.
We are staying in a sweet little room off the garage in an old house on an old street in Lawrence. It’s described as a casita and it is sort of. Not freestanding like casitas I’ve stayed at in New Mexico but small, cheerful and well appointed so suits us just fine (and very reasonably priced. About $50 As I recall.) Sure beats a bland motel (we will have that tomorrow in Dodge City).
As we were barreling down Interstate 35 from Des Moines and getting hungry, we remembered a great little restaurant we’d gone to in a former drugstore in Smithville, Mo., just north of Kansas City. but when I looked it up, I discovered it had closed. Then I discovered the owner had just opened a restaurant in Kansas City, just south of the plaza, about two blocks from where we lived very briefly almost 30 years ago. The restaurant, Black Dirt, was very good. We had the much-lauded fried chicken which was as good as advertised. Somehow, the chicken breast meat was moist, the skin crispy but light, the sage gravy and potatoes creamy and flavorful and the stalks of broccoli rabe were bright green but well cooked and again, full of flavor (butter?cumin seeds). We also had a Missouri Caesar with tender chunks of fried catfish instead of croutons. The salty part was smoked trout rather than anchovies. Clever and good. Also enjoyed the duck confit fritters and the homemade bread with butter was worth the $5 Extra, Our waitress was a Drake U. Grad and big fan of DSM so that was fun. We will be back!
Friends went to a Solar Eclipse viewing party at Green Dirt Farm in the pretty old tobacco-growing town of Weston, Missouri, just north of Kansas City. It uses milk and cream from grass-fed sheep to make cheese and yogurt. It also offers “dirt-to-table” meals prepared by visiting Kansas City chefs (although it looks like you need to book way ahead for some!) Also check out the $25 off coupon on the website!
After a quiet night at our airbnb in Rogers, we dropped in at the hip happening coffee shop in downtown Bentonville, Onyx, which was buzzing, on a Sunday morning no less. After a few jolts of caffeine, we drove north through Missouri, passing what seemed like many road signs advertising Jesus, guns, churches and anti-abortion.
Stopped for gas in Lamar and toured a local outlet of the “Beef Jerky Warehouse,” which had more varieties of jerky than imaginable and some interesting T-shirts. We were taken aback, while reading a little wall sign about Lamar’s history, to see a casual mention of the KKK meetings (once) held in town.
In Kansas City, where the fall colors were most spectacular, we had lunch with a favorite relative, Uncle Kenneth, on the Plaza at the Parkway Social Kitchen. Not bad. Particularly appreciated the servers, who were gentle and kind to our elderly relative, which was much appreciated. The drive home to Iowa – where the trees also have turned fiery reds, yellows and oranges during our one week away – was also uneventful.
It’s been too long since we explored Kansas City so last weekend while there for a lovely family wedding, we revisited Arthur Bryant‘s for barbecue (no change there, still great fries and ribs although the burnt ends weren’t as good as remember – more manufactured chunks slathered in sauce rather than the random scraped up crusty scraps I remembered from years past). We also had an excellent family brunch (light omelettes with thin crusty fries; a good Eggs Benedict with poached eggs and smoked salmon, although the Hollandaise sauce was cold) with a special guest (Uncle Kenneth!) at Westport Cafe & Bar.
Le Lou Flea
A highlight was explored the vintage, antique and design shops in the West Bottoms, which not long ago was just a bunch of abandoned gloomy towering brick industrial buildings where I gather, the Mafia got up to no good. Now there are vintage shops (Le Lou Flea) – all four rickety floors) and design stores (Varnish and Vine) here and there, plus a cool coffee shop (Blip Roasters) and more I’m sure to come given the growing popularity of once-dying post-industrial former dead zones in Rust Belt cities. A few I wanted to visit weren’t open on a Sunday afternoon including the the Gathering Place and Goldie & Myrtle’s. (Next time!) Some kids-in-the-know at Varnish & Vine also recommended some restaurants in the area including Voltaire, Stockyards and Rock Star Burgers.
We stopped briefly nearby in another west side neighborhood nearby (that reminds me Des Moines’ Sherman Hill) at West Side Storey (geddit) across from an artisan bakery (Fervere) and Bluebird Cafe/Bistro that we used go to. (Nearby, we also happened upon the FBI office in KC in a suitably hidden location).
I am the only guest tonight (no surprise for a Monday night in early December ) at the beautiful Oak Street Mansion, a lovely 1903 red brick mansion just north of the Nelson Atkins Museum. The place is a great mix of old world furnishings and contemporary art. The owner has filled the place with his father’s art collection and it’s quite something. his dad was acame here from Cuba and spent his early years in foster care but somenhow managed to start collecting art, starting with African art and moving into I am not exactly sure what (there is at least on Thomas hart Benton according to a book about this place).
The famous PLaza lights!
Anyway, beats the local Marriot and very close to where my work meeting is tomorrow morning and to a Gates BBQ outpost on Emmanuel Cleaver Rd. (I can’t return home without ribs wrapped to go!)
I had a nice dinner tonight with my lovely uncle-in-law Kenneth at Aixion, a nice little French place in the pretty Brookside area, another place I used to go during the brief stint I lived here in 1989/1990.