Downtown Zoo


On a beautiful Saturday afternoon, our thoughts turned — as usual — to a bar tour. To us, warm weather says barhopping and drinking in dank holes instead of, say, hacky sacking or Frisbee throwing. We rustled up Research Assistant Cece and set off for our first downtown bar tour. But, as it turned out, our only stop was the Zoo Bar.

We headed east to the fancily named “Government District.” Once we passed Grand, the streets were dead — crickets-chirping, tumbleweed-tumbling dead. The ghost-townlike atmosphere was downright eerie. So once we found the bar at 12th Street and McGee, near the old library, we ducked in quickly, ready for a drink.

Inside, our first reaction was that we must be at “Dave’s Stagecoach North,” only with fewer hipsters. Naturally, we loved it. The bar is a long, narrow dive that’s wedged into a building that shares space with a bail-bonds company. Cagelike bars cover the windows, and the dingy yellow walls are completely covered in marker graffiti, including the baffling commemoration “Dave, Cindy S. and Sally, 5-9-94, the awesomethreesome (wasted).” We have no idea what that means, but if it’s on a bar wall in red marker, it must be true.

With the bar itself taking up most of the space, seating options were limited to tall, blue-gray Naugahyde stools nearly our height. Spread out among the stools, the 6 p.m. drinkers huddled. The natives greeted us warmly with a jovial, “Hello, ladies!” After we ordered $2.25 beer, available only in cans, the locals invited us to partake of a taco buffet on a back table. “He [the owner] buys the best taco shells. And I’m Mexican,” said a pretty brunette named Heather, who sported a chartreuse tank top.

As we crunched away, we assessed the terrain. Entertainment options were limited to Silver Strike Bowling, a video trivia machine atop the bar and a flip-page jukebox, which contained mainly classics. The crowd was in a Sinatra mood, though the cute, young strawberry-blonde behind the bar slipped in Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart.” Then someone played “The Way You Look Tonight,” which inspired an older guy in a yellow T-shirt to start waltzing with Heather. “Does anyone know CPR?” one guy yelled, to everyone’s delight.

The best part of the décor, though, was the plethora of animal props. It was as though the taxidermic displays at Jumpin’ Catfish had escaped and taken up residence on the Zoo Bar’s liquor shelves. On the topmost shelf, a lifelike mongoose battled a cobra. Next to it was a badger humping a stick. A cow skull wore a wig, and a stuffed bear gathered dust.

Just then, a guy in shorts and a button-down shirt came in and greeted everyone. He eventually made his way to the back to say hello. He told us that he had just been to the Woodlands, where his buddy hit the trifecta and won $20,000. Sadly, our new friend, who introduced himself as 40-year-old Paul Henry Rojas, just missed hitting it himself.

He also mentioned that his dad is a retired Missouri state legislator. “At my family’s house, it’s on,” he said, referring to the frequent political discussions that take place. “After dinner, it’s like, ‘How’s everyone doing?’ We’re hardcore Democrats like you wouldn’t believe.” Now, he works for J.E. Dunn and has been helping construct the Power and Light District, which is how he discovered the Zoo Bar.

The guy in the yellow T-shirt — a regular named Bob — confirmed our suspicion that the place draws a mix of those with interesting insights about how the city works. The bar has been open for 25 years, and its population includes lawyers, doctors, judges and ordinary people, he said. In measured tones, he lauded the friendly spirit of the place. “The big thing we do in this bar is we help people.” He himself said he got a guy out of jail, landed him a job and helped him back on his feet. “He lived with me for a while. Now he makes $50,000 a year.”

Next, we zeroed in on a guy sporting a baseball uniform at the bar. Michael, a 67-year-old member of the KC Metro Senior Softball League, had white hair under his cap and a burnished red face. He told us that he’s been frequenting the Zoo Bar forever. His best friend — Ray Webb, a former Jackson County prosecutor — used to own it. Michael pointed out some soot, marking damage from a fire in 1984 that shut down the bar for several months.

Michael used to own a Northland bar called the Locker Room, so we asked him to recall the most memorable thing that happened at his place. Michael told us about the time he killed someone. Back in 1982, two guys walked into the bar. One was upset and had parked his motorcycle where he shouldn’t have. When Michael asked him not to park there, he says the guy walked up and hit him. Fisticuffs erupted, and Michael beat him up. Then the other guy grabbed a customer’s neck and put a gun to it. “I shot him two times in the heart and once in the throat,” Michael said. “I’m a very good shot.”

He was arrested. Webb, the prosecutor, told the cops, “You can either charge him with murder and put him in jail or let him go.” Webb then threw him the keys and said, “The car’s running outside. Go home.”

That was our cue to go home, too. As the midevening crowd started to filter in, we said our goodbyes and slipped out onto the empty street. Bustle be damned — we’re hoping that downtown’s dives aren’t on the endangered-species list just yet.

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