KCK’s Mockingbird Lounge could make a Cheers-style regular out of me
I live near three entertainment districts in Kansas City, Missouri. I have no shortage of options for nearby neighborly cheer. Finding a Cheers, though — an establishment where at least a couple of people know my name and are always glad I came — that’s tough. Yet, hokey as it might sound, I keep looking for such a spot, a diner or a watering hole whose regulars I might join.
And recently, I have found that sometimes I wanna go to KCK.
I do not live close to Kansas City, Kansas. But that minor detail isn’t enough to keep me away from the Mockingbird Lounge, where I’ve recently discovered that the cocktails are smooth, the service is cordial and the all-day brunch menu is stuffed with more avocado than a white girl on Cinco de Mayo. The six-month-old bar and brunch spot enjoys a prime perch atop Strawberry Hill, and its wooden patio offers one of the metro’s best unobstructed downtown vantage points. There’s a reason the building’s previous tenant, a neighborhood gay bar that roosted there under various owners from 1983 to 2014, was called the View.
Though the Mockingbird isn’t a gay bar, it has stayed true to a couple of its predecessor’s bedrock tenets: bargain-basement drink specials and an unfussy feel. To save scratch, owner Dan Castillo handled the lounge’s renovations himself, building a new red-oak bar and installing high-top pallet tables orbited by multihued industrial stools. The updated look is bright and cozy, accented with airy blue walls, glossy white subway tiles and stripes of icy Christmas lights.
Happy hour at the ’bird means $2 wells and select beers. If it’s a slow night, you might get a friendly upgrade. On one recent visit, the bartender filled my G&T with Hendrick’s and poured it over some block ice infused with blueberries and lemon zest she’d brought from home. She charged me the well price with a shrug: “I felt like experimenting.”
The on-menu cocktails, which Castillo developed himself, are a little pricier. Most are solid, but not everything’s a hit. The “maple Old Fashioned” I ordered was smooth-sipping and fragrant with orange bitters, but the maple was too shy to have earned marquee billing. (Say this, though: The drink centered on a very generous, Uber-home pour of rye.) I preferred the watermelon mojito, a pretty, summery drink, this time fresh to bursting with its advertised flavor and complemented by cool, astringent mint.
The personalities — both behind the bar and in front of it — are half the draw. Castillo and his family are warm without ever seeming overbearing or salesman-y. And Castillo has been careful to hire hospitality pros to fill in when he’s not around. In particular, Brandy Gordon, one of the friendliest faces behind the stick, is creative, tenacious and passionate about her drinks. She’s also fast. If Gordon is on that night, forgo the table and take a seat at the bar.
Mockingbird has a small but smart menu Castillo and his mother, Rebekah Suminski, developed together using her recipes. Millennials, rejoice: The avocado is king here, and it’s priced for peasants. Suminski’s guacamole — fresh, peppery, not over-limed — is the starter to beat. And even after you’ve devoured it, you welcome another dose on the pulled-pork tacos: two soft flour tortillas snuggled around savory, slow-roasted pork, fresh pico de gallo and Cholula.
Another hit: the salmon sandwich, a buttery croissant topped with a tender salmon filet and smeared generously with an avocado spread. A cup of steaming sweet-potato hash comes on the side; the version I tried was well-prepared, though it could have been more generously spiced.
Vegetarians can sample a similar sandwich that replaces the salmon with two eggs (a mess to eat, though no less enjoyable). The accompanying side salad — a fresh blend of petite cucumber slices, tomato, red onion and lemon-avocado dressing — is worth ordering on its own.
The menu tops out at $8, and the dish at that ceiling — chorizo and waffles — is worth what passes here for expense. Mockingbird’s version smothers a slightly sweet, Belgian-style waffle in crumbled chorizo, two self-saucing eggs and a dollop of lime-heavy pico de gallo. (A wee carafe of syrup comes on the side.) It’s a hearty, hangover-soothing balance of salt, sweetness and fat.
One quibble: The kitchen seems to be working out some consistency issues. On all three of my visits, I ordered the biscuits and gravy but received a slightly different dish. The gravy ranged in color and quantity from a tawny-colored pool to an ivory ribbon to a milk-white lake under lily pads of chorizo. All three were serviceable, but I’d cross my fingers for Option No. 3.
Food was slow out of the kitchen on a couple of my visits — a problem that could scale if more carpetbaggers like me start to descend on the place. But Mockingbird’s neighborhood vibe (and neighborhood regulars) give you plenty to take in while you wait. Nurse a $2 drink over a spontaneous conversation with an assembly-plant worker with Alabama vowels. Watch Finch, Castillo’s sweet-tempered, free-roaming pup, gum the fringe on an accent rug like an old hobo with a toothpick. Wriggle into a seat at the bar between relieved line cooks in inside-out work tees and Anthropologie-d Ladies Who Brunch. This is the Mockingbird, where the ambience, the menu and the prices are palatable for everyone.
The Mockingbird Lounge
204 Orchard Street, Kansas City, Kansas, 913-787-0921, themockingbirdkc.com
11 a.m.–1 a.m. Monday–Thursday, 11 a.m.–2 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m.–midnight Sunday
Best bet: For happy hour, nibble chips and guac and sip a watermelon mojito. Order the chorizo waffles as an entrée.