Where to go in Strawberry Hill, KCK: a guide
With its laid-back feel, porch-wrapped homes, and sweeping, blufftop views above the Kansas and Missouri rivers, Strawberry Hill is one of the KC metro’s true gems. We have long feared the possibility of the neighborhood losing its soul to gentrification. And there are recent signals of just that — a long-abandoned limestone Catholic Church at 5th Street and Ann Avenue is being redeveloped into a state-of-the-art boxing gym, and the Merc (a Lawrence-based natural foods grocery) is moving in at 5th and Minnesota Avenue. For the moment, though, Strawberry Hill remains mostly a sleepy secret, rich in quality hangouts and some of the city’s finest dive bars. Here, we (quietly) present a few of the many reasons you might wish to make Strawberry Hill a more regular destination.
In a town with no shortage of great barbecue, Slap’s BBQ managed to become an overnight sensation upon opening in 2015, and it continues to pull in big, well-deserved crowds daily. Before establishing their brick-and-mortar presence, owners (and brothers) Mike and Joe Pearce were regulars on the competition circuit, and they continue to take part in an astounding 25-35 competitions every year. (Slap’s is short for their team name, Squeal Like a Pig.) This dedication to their craft shines through in the food, which is almost unbearably good. Sandwiches are piled to ridiculous heights with spicy jalapeno-beef sausages, fork-tender brisket, and of course, lucious burnt ends. (Our humble order tip: opt for a sticky rack of ribs with sides of cheesy corn and baked potato casserole.) The picnic-table seating is communal — both in the cozy indoor space and the newer, spacious (and heated) deck outside — which makes Slap’s a wonderful place to make a new friend during the twenty minutes before you slip into a deep food coma.
Kansas City now boasts several arcade bars, but we generally prefer specialty operations, and 403 Club occupies a niche lane as the primo joint for pinball in town. Inside the bar are a dozen well-maintained machines, including a personal favorite, Attack from Mars. There’s league play, weekly local tournaments and monthly IFPA (that would be the International Flipper Pinball Association, of course) games. Not into pinball? Not a prerequisite. For a dive bar in Wyandotte County, 403 has a damn impressive beer list: something like 60 different beers from all around the world.
Breit’s Stein & Deli has a worn-in feel — aged brick, dark wood, tin ceilings — that gives off the impression it’s been around for generations. Actually, though, it just hit its Sweet Sixteen, having opened in 2002. Because it’s so comfortable and old-school, you might assume it’s the type of neighborhood joint that coasts by despite having a lousy service or bad food. But Breit’s suffers from neither. The Reuben is legitimately great, stacked high with warm, house-made corned beef on marbled rye bread and toasted in a panini press. Including potato salad or chips, this meal costs less than $5. Let me repeat that: $5 for lunch. Add a Goose Island (on tap), and you’re still getting a better deal than what you’d pay for lunch almost anywhere else in the city. God bless Breit’s.
Even just five years ago, it would have been very hard to imagine brunch in KCK. But here’s Mockingbird Lounge, with its bright, airy dining room and bar, serving an all-day brunch-style menu stacked with healthy and savory dishes. We love the salmon filet sandwich, which comes topped with a smear of fresh avocado on a bed of greens, with a side of sweet potato hash. And damned if they don’t have a respectable craft beer list, good wine, and creative cocktails. Is it out of sync with Strawberry Hill’s more blue-collar surroundings? Sure, but the neighborhood doesn’t seem to mind, especially when most dishes are $10 or less. Pro tip: don’t forget to pop out onto the patio, which offers one of the best views of the downtown KCMO skyline.
There’s something to be said for KC’s exploding cocktail scene and the ever-expanding selection of tasting menus. But there also must be balance in the force, and the Colonial Club, a descendent of sorts of midtown’s Blind Tiger (RIP), offers up a nice dose of the low end. With its wood paneling, Princess Leia poster, velvet paintings, and worn dart boards, Colonial Club is part dive and part basement clubhouse. Inexpensive drinks, made-to-order pizza, and a grassy outdoor patio round make it an easy spot to drop by on a regular basis — whether for day-drinking (it opens at 11 a.m.) or closing out the night (2 a.m.)
It’s not easy to find good coffee in KCK, which makes Adam and Caleb Wittmer’s Splitlog Coffee especially essential. At their small shop (directly across the street from Slap’s), the Wittmers sell drinks made with Oddly Correct and Messenger Coffee, as well as a rotating selection of featured roasters. It’s also one of a handful of places that carry the delicious offerings from Hana’s Donuts (try the pistachio), as well as muffins, scones, and cheese-stuffed croissants from SunFlour Bakery.
There always seems to be something going on at Johnnie’s, a south-end Strawberry Hill joint (technically, it’s probably Russian Hill, but let’s not quibble) founded back in 1934. Often, that something is sports-related: a bunch of folks headed to Arrowhead in a preposterous-looking Chiefs van, flags draped out for a Croatian World Cup soccer party, a Royals game blasting over the bar speakers. It can get loud in there. But this level of excitability is what sets J7 apart from other KCK dives, which tend to be on the drowsier side. People actually talk to each other at Johnnie’s — something we’re more and more appreciative of in this age of slumped-over smartphone users.