Kansas City's Midwest renaissance
A restored billboard on the side of the Rieger Hotel Grill. (Katie Hammel)
“If you want to see some sin, forget Paris and head to Kansas City,” journalist Edward Morrow once wrote.
Think of Kansas City today and “sin” may be one of the last things that comes to mind, but during the 1920s, when Morrow’s statement earned Kansas City the moniker “the Paris of the Plains”, it was the most rebellious spot in the United States.
For the most part, Kansas City’s reputation for debauchery spawned from the city’s most influential politician, Tom Pendergast. Under the rule of Pendergast and his corrupt police force, the Kansas City of the early 1900s was an enclave out of Prohibition’s reach, where alcohol flowed freely and not a single citizen was convicted of manufacturing, transporting, selling or possessing booze during the 13-year period when alcohol was banned nationwide. The wide-open party town, split down the middle by the Kansas/Missouri state line, attracted both the criminal and the creative, including jazz musicians who made the city one of the most exciting of the time. At the height of Kansas City’s heyday in the 1930s, there were more than 100 jazz clubs hosting performances and jam sessions that would launch the careers of musicians such as Count Basie and Charlie Parker.
The Pendergast machine eventually lost its hold on the city, World War II called the musicians to serve their country in the early 1940s and Kansas City grew quieter. By 1944 the golden era of Kansas City jazz had all but come to an end. Urban sprawl and inner city decay hit the city hard, aided by the construction of two interstate highways in the 1970s and ‘80s that cut directly through the downtown, offering easy access for suburban commuters and leaving Kansas City a virtual ghost town after dark. But today, this border-straddling city with a history of jazz, barbecue and booze is hoping that a new crop of cocktail and craft beer bars, farm-to-table restaurants and modern art spaces will return this once “sinful” town to being a capital of culture and help reclaim the city’s status as the “Paris of the Plains”.
Prohibition classics, recreated
It seems fitting that mixology-driven cocktail bars, many of which pay homage to the city’s speakeasy days, are a driving force in the rebirth of Kansas City’s nightlife. In 2009, the 48-seat Manifesto lounge opened in the basement of a restaurant called 1924 Main, only to close a year later when the restaurant shut its doors. Instead of calling it quits or looking for another location, owner Ryan Maybee (who also launched the Paris of the Plains Cocktail Festival) partnered with chef Howard Hanna to open a new incarnation as a restaurant and bar in the same space the following year. The new restaurant was named The Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange, a nod to the previous tenant, the Rieger Hotel, which opened in the building in 1914. From 1877 to 1919, the Rieger family also ran a small whiskey production, which they advertised with a mural on the building’s south wall; when Maybee opened the new restaurant, he restored the faded billboard to its original look.
Upstairs, the restaurant serves regionally-focused cuisine like strip steak with local potatoes and roasted kale, or fried catfish sandwiches. Downstairs, accessed by an unmarked back-alley entrance, the drinks menu at the dimly-lit, reservations-only Manifesto lounge re-imagines Prohibition-era cocktails using ingredients like craft spirits, house-made bitters and juice and egg whites. The menu changes with the seasons, but recent standouts have included the Moscow Sour, with berry-infused Samogon (a small-batch vodka made in Kansas City), tonic syrup, lemon and egg white; or the KC Streetcar, a mix of Old Overholt rye, lemon, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao, smoked bitters and locally-made Boulevard Brewing Wheat beer.