A new crop of cocktail and craft beer bars, farm-to-table restaurants and modern art spaces may help this once sinful Missouri town reclaim its status as the “Paris of the Plains”.

“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.

The locals’ love of craft cocktails is also evident in the success of other establishments such as the Westport Café and Bar, which specialises in classics like the Old Fashioned, made of whiskey, simple syrup, bitters and an orange twist, and the Pimm’s Cup, a British cocktail made with a gin-based liquor, fresh and candied ginger, lime, soda, and mint; Grunhauer, where ingredients like pumpkin seed-oil infused cachaça, muddled lemon, raw sugar simple syrup and grated nutmeg make uniquely artisanal drinks; and The Drop, where patrons can eat their drinks in the form of jiggly, semi-solid  two-bite “drops”.

Even the beer scene is striving for a higher level of sophistication; in 1999 Boulevard Brewing took over a forgotten stretch of road on the city’s west side, and now it is the largest craft brewery in the US Midwest, winning gold medals at the 2011 Great American Beer Festival for its Boulevard Pale Ale and French-style Saison Brett. At beer-centric bar The Riot Room, 53 taps serve Boulevard beers and Missouri-made Schlafly brews alongside other national award-winning craft favourites like Yeti Imperial Stout from Colorado’s Great Divide (which won silver and bronze medals in 2005, 2008 and 2009), Avery’s The Kaiser (a gold medal winner in 2009) and California brewery Bear Republic‘s Ryevalry, which took home a gold medal in 2010.  

The speakeasy goes legit
While the "golden age" of jazz ended, the Kansas City sound never really disappeared. There was a time when the sound was fainter, when many of the city’s best musicians left and the creative jam-sessions that shaped the Kansas City sound were less frequent, but places like the Mutual Musicians Foundation ensured that the band, in some way or another, played on.

Located in the city’s 18th and Vine historic district, a centre for African-American culture through the 1960s, the foundation began in 1917 as Local 627, the city’s branch of the “Colored Musicians Union”, which was an African-American affiliation of the American Federation of Musicians. Mainly established to serve as an advocate service, the union building also became a social gathering place, and eventually the tradition of late-night jam sessions was born.

Since the 1930s, jazz aficionados have been coming to the foundation for all-night weekend jams that run until 5 am and feature musicians both local and international, professional and amateur, young and old. For decades the venue operated as a speakeasy, but when the police threatened to close it down a few years ago, the city rallied and a special provision was passed to exempt buildings on the National Historic Register (including the foundation) from the prevailing liquor laws. Though Kansas City’s days as a town where the booze flowed freely are gone, the foundation’s tradition was saved and it remains the best place to hear jazz in the city (and the only place in the state of Missouri where drinks are sold until 6 am).

If you feed them, they will come
The regeneration of Kansas City’s downtown is also due, in part, to the recent arrival of several new farm-to-table restaurants where chefs focus on using organic and hyper-local ingredients. One of the first was The Farmhouse, a cosy space with exposed brick that opened in 2009 in the River Market area just a few blocks north of the downtown core. Here they take a seasonal approach to the frequently-changing menu, using whatever is local and fresh from a select group of farmers.  Another 2009 addition, Westside Local, creates locally-sourced and seasonally-influenced comfort food, like macaroni and cheese with local chicken and seasonal veggies, or house-smoked short ribs served with barbecue sauce made with Boulevard���s Pale Ale.  

But perhaps neither The Farmhouse nor Westside Local would exist if chef Jonathan Justus had not bought a restored 1950s drugstore 20 minutes north of downtown and turned it into a restaurant named the Justus Drugstore in 2007. Justus may well be the founding father of the city’s farm-to-table movement, and arguably its most fanatical proponent.  Passionate to the point of obsessive, he visits all of his meat providers’ farms and factories, forages for native edible plants and insists his chefs butcher their own meat, bake their own bread and make their own sausages in house. In the restaurant’s bar it is no different; drinks are created with house-made bitters and specially infused spirits.

Together, restaurants like these have brought new life to the beef-and-barbecue culinary scene in Kansas City, earning praise for their zealous devotion to using locally-sourced ingredients in creative dishes like The Farmhouse’s chicken breast brined in hometown-brewed Boulevard beer and served with bourbon maple cornbread, or Justus Drugstore’s local pork with wild grape blossom cognac and savoury goats cheese flan.

An artistic crossroads
Starting in the early 1900s, water fountains were commonplace in Kansas City, and today there are more than 200 across the city. It is said that the city has more public fountains than any place other than Rome; the first were erected in 1904 by the Humane Society as a source of water for service animals, but later more artistically-designed fountains were built and today they are a point of civic pride. Now art is taking centre stage in the city once more and in an even bigger way. The Crossroads Art District, home to more than 100 independent galleries, has become one of the most concentrated arts districts in the country. On the first Friday of every month, the galleries are open to the public for free, displaying work from both established and up-and-coming artists.

The biggest addition to the artistic landscape of Kansas City came with the 2011 opening of the $413 million Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. The new home of the Kansas City Symphony, Kansas City Ballet and the Lyric Opera, the centre’s two performance halls each offer more capacity than any Broadway theatre and have technical capabilities that will allow producers to pursue more advanced stage design and bring greater recognition to Kansas City as a Midwest cultural enclave.

It is a long way from the city’s wild and sin-fuelled past, but to many it seems a tangible representation of the possibilities for the future. The centre, with its gleaming glass shells, is the most visible symbol of the cultural renaissance that will usher in a new era of creativity, revitalize the downtown and return Kansas City to the dynamic, creative and worldly place it once was.