Until a few years ago, the first and last thing to know about Kansas City cuisine was barbecue. In a 1972 Playboy article, the legendary food writer Calvin Trillin sealed the city’s fate with a grand declaration: “[The] single best restaurant in the world is Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue at 18th and Brooklyn in Kansas City.” He followed up with a smutty anecdote about one of the most sacred culinary sites in America:

“The counterman tosses a couple of pieces of bread onto the counter, grabs a half pound of beef from the pile next to him, slaps it onto the bread, brushes on some sauce in almost the same motion, and then wraps it all up in two thicknesses of butcher paper in a futile attempt to keep the customer’s hands dry as he carries off his prize.”

Legend of BBQ. OG Spine Crew. #arthurbryants #kansascity #getinthepit #realshit #spinecrew

A photo posted by @badteethrecordings on

Thanks in part to Trillin, Kansas City became a can’t-miss destination for smoked-meat pilgrims, who still can experience the counterman’s scene at Bryant’s and the 100 or so other barbecue restaurants in the metropolitan area. But there’s a little curse to go along with all those spare-rib and burnt-end blessings, because unless you’re that special kind of tourist, the rest of Kansas City’s food scene isn’t likely to register a blip on your radar. And while it’s usually not smart to complain when your city is a global destination for anything, it can be a challenge for local chefs who are eager to evolve beyond the hallowed traditions of meat, salt, and smoke.

Thank You For Not Smoking

“I’ve always had a hard time with the whole barbecue thing, because I don’t crave it and I don’t want to compete with it,” said Michael Smith, the one-time Charlie Trotter acolyte whose 1999 James Beard Award for Best Chef: Midwest while at the iconic American Restaurant set off Kansas City’s ongoing culinary transformation. “For a long time, I’ve just been trying to get people to try a few crazier things.”

extravirginPhoto: Facebook/Extra Virgin

Smith’s vision—or what you might call iconoclasm in Kansas City—translates into a menu at Extra Virgin, his casual Mediterranean spot in the hot Crossroads Arts District, that wouldn’t look out of place at Fergus Henderson’s St. John or Chris Cosentino’s Cockscomb. There are beef tongue, duck tongue, bone marrow, pig ear, trotter, goat, and sea urchin dishes, none of which were widely accessible on restaurant menus in Kansas City even a few years ago. The foodie legionnaires in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and D.C. might see this evolution as laughably slow, but it means that there is a growing opportunity to be more independent and creative in Kansas City.

There’s also space to do business. A steady local economy, low cost of living, and growing local farm-to-market system, among other things, are adding to the sense of possibility and momentum. Feast Magazine, a watcher of the local scene, logged 18 local restaurant openings over the last three months. The fact that only one was a barbecue joint doesn’t mean that a decisive turn away from barbecue is happening. It’s more nuanced than that. Still, you can certainly sense that a new regional cuisine is being stitched together in the same scrappy way that the Kansas City Royals organization was transformed from 30-year joke into World Series Champion in 2015.

Going (Back) to Kansas City

Shortly after Smith’s Beard award, the old, dusty machine started to lurch forward again. Another eventual Beard award winner and native son, Colby Garrelts, and his Beard-nominated wife, Megan, came back to Kansas City in 2003 with big-city pedigrees and similar plans to shake things up. They opened Kansas City’s first tasting menu-driven restaurant, bluestem, shortly after in a sleepy location on the fringe of the bar-heavy Westport neighborhood. Ted Habiger, another local who had spent time working for Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group in New York, returned to town around the same time to open his acclaimed casual fine-dining restaurant, Room 39.

corvinosteakPhoto courtesy Michael Corvino

“When we arrived here, it was not pleasant, and we weren’t sure if people would ever want what we had to offer,” said Megan Garrelts, who along with her husband also opened Rye, one of the must-try places for modern Midwestern cuisine, in 2012. “But the community embraced us, and we pretty quickly learned that Kansas City is not just a barbecue town; it has a whiskey heritage, a beer heritage, great farms, history, and culture.”

Most of the next-generation talent that is pushing the Kansas City scene forward worked for Smith, the Garrelts, or Habiger, including Room 39 veteran Howard Hanna. Hanna’s flagship restaurant, The Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange, sits in the Rieger Hotel building, a wet haven during Kansas City’s Prohibition heydays. The city’s first craft cocktail bar, Ryan Maybee’s Manifesto, is in the basement, and Maybee and partners have resurrected the Rieger Kansas City Whiskey recipe that made its eponymous owners rich before the Volstead Act.

Infamous Kansas City political boss Tom Pendergast hosted Al Capone often at the Rieger, and the entire surrounding area, including the historic 18th & Vine Jazz District, was filled with sound and fire (Arthur Bryant’s opened not far away in 1930). Hanna’s restaurant, with its original tile floors and smoky clamor, is plucked right out of the era.

“I remember being frustrated that barbecue was all anyone talked about when it came to Kansas City food,” said Hanna. “But it’s about our history and our ties to the livestock trade, and it has Native-American, African-American, and European-American roots. That’s a lot to build on.”

“I remember being frustrated that barbecue was all anyone talked about when it came to Kansas City food,” said Hanna. “But it’s about our history and our ties to the livestock trade, and it has Native-American, African-American, and European-American roots. That’s a lot to build on.”

Hanna’s dishes, like smoked ham with cornbread stuffing and collard greens, pull from all those historical influences and more. His peers are running with the theme at all levels.

The iconic American Restaurant, Michael Smith’s old haunt, is where Midwestern heritage meets haute cuisine under the watchful eye of a chef who isn’t even from Kansas City. In what was recognized as a coup for the local scene, Michael Corvino was lured away from the high-profile dining room at Dallas’ Rosewood Mansion at Turtle Creek in 2013. He has become something of an evangelist, with plates that showcase the intersection of local cultures (think Piedmontese striploin with black trumpet mushrooms, huitlacoche, and wasabi).

chefsPhoto: Colby and Megan Garrelts

“I’m trying for a progressive touch on the smoky, dark, saucy Kansas City barbecue element, but also embracing more about the region,” said Corvino. “And what’s really making me excited to stay here are the people, the hospitality, and the opportunities we have to grow.”

That growth is both undeniable and largely un-barbecue. Ryan Brazeal, a local who spent a decade in New York, is back at Novel on the West Side. Patrick Ryan, a veteran of Rick Bayless’ Chicago empire, has a mind bender of a Mexican restaurant in Wesport called Port Fonda. Jonathan Justus, whose Justus Drugstore restaurant outside of Kansas City is a landmark of locavorism, is about to open downtown. Even ramen has arrived in the form of Columbus Park Ramen Shop, opened by Josh and Abbey-Jo Eans. A whole crew of high-end butchers, bakers, boozemakers, and others are filling the gaps in between.

“Ferran Adrià, of all people, was recently eating at Happy Gillis and he said he was amazed that so many young people are building this grassroots food movement,” said Abbey-Jo Eans.

A New Hope, a New ‘Cue

If the modernist-cuisine icon Ferran Adrià weighed in on the city’s culinary evolution, does that mean Kansas City barbecue is on its way out? Not exactly. For the first time in more than a decade, new joints have opened up that aren’t just elevating the classic Kansas City style, but are meeting people like the Garrelts, Hanna, Justus, and others somewhere in the middle in the effort to create a modern regional cuisine. Often times, this is manifesting in the barbecue itself.

q39BBQ reincarnated from Q39. (Photo courtesy Landon Vonderschmidt Photography)

“There are more barbecue venues in KC now than there ever have been, but it’s the rare one that can really break through given that people’s brand loyalty is so strong with the old places,” said Charles Ferruzza, food critic at The Pitch, Kansas City’s alternative newspaper. “But Q39 and Char Bar are new high points that are serving really good food that isn’t even barbecue.”

Q39 was opened last year by Rob Magee, a restaurant industry and barbecue-circuit veteran with an evangelical streak about fresh and scratch-made food—and no hang-ups about the old way of doing barbecue business in Kansas City. You’re likely to find table waits there that already match the most popular non-barbecue restaurants in town.

“I’m trying for a progressive touch on the smoky, dark, saucy Kansas City barbecue element, but also embracing more about the region.”

“I saw the opportunity to rethink how BBQ restaurants work and bring things up a level or two,” said Magee. “That’s the niche that wasn’t being filled.”

So what does this all mean for the future of food in Kansas City, and where can we look for parables? One of the culinary nerve centers of the fast-transforming south, New Orleans, is a good place to start, having gone through a rolling transformation since Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.

reigerPhoto: Theriegerkc.com

“New Orleans was always known as the city of Creole cuisine, of gumbo and jambalaya, of po’ boys and étouffée,” said Tina Antolini, host and producer of the Gravy podcast from the Southern Foodways Alliance. “But it has broadened its identity to include Vietnamese and regional Italian food, plus, heck, one of the most popular restaurants in the city right now is Shaya, which serves modern Israeli food. Embracing these newer flavors is not a matter of contradicting or replacing the old culture, but of adding another layer to that pre-existing identity. I think New Orleans is an example of a place doing that pretty successfully.”

These words could have come of the mouth of Howard Hanna or any number of others in Kansas City, but they’d all admit there’s a long way to go.

“Things are rocking here,” said Michael Smith. “But would someone please fucking give us some real Chinese or Thai food? We’re ready.”