Once home to Kansas City’s infamous mafia scene, Columbus Park has transformed into a tapestry of multiculturalism.
Located north of downtown and due east of the River Market, Columbus Park might be new to the city’s art scene, but it’s no stranger to the city’s folklore. By the early 1900s, nearly 12,000 Italian immigrants had moved to this neighborhood, most of them Sicilian. References to Mafia activity in the area date back to the late 1800s, and infamous names like Pendergast and Lazia decorate rumors of crime and intimidation on the streets of Columbus Park.
Today, Columbus Park, sometimes known as the North End or Little Italy, is a neighborhood in flux. The arrival of Italian immigrants to the area has been followed almost a century later by a wave of Vietnamese and South Asian immigrants, and most recently, by local artists in search of studio space. Red, white and green painted fire hydrants serve as reminders of this neighborhood’s origins, while the sounds of sculptors hammering in their studios and the aroma of simmering coriander and ginger suggest Columbus Park’s future.
Columbus Park is the sort of uncommon artist neighborhood where one feels like the creation of art is actually happening behind every brightly painted door. Here, eggplant purples, Gulf Coast turquoises, rich magentas and vibrant greens are common accents for Columbus Park’s historic homes, and the arts community in Columbus Park is largely a local affair. To date, there are more studios than galleries.
As photographic mixed media artist Chris Dahlquist says, “While we do have a great gallery night in Columbus Park, what is really happening is artists are living and working in the neighborhood. Some, like Hollis Officer, for decades, and others, like Calder Kamin and Matt Tady, have moved here in the last few years.”
On third Fridays, from April to November, the neighborhood arts scene is centered on the Trap Gallery (525 Gillis), where exhibits featuring the diversity of artists in the area are regular occurrences.
Although the arts are just beginning to gain notoriety here, Columbus Park’s culinary scene is well established. A little slice of foodie heaven, Columbus Park taps into its diverse ethnic roots to call forth Italian and Asian eateries and artisan-inspired lunch spots, many of which attract visitors from the far-flung suburbs across the metro.
One such iconic eatery is Happy Gillis Café and Hangout (549 Gillis), a diner-meets-corner-store that, as the name suggests, serves as a popular hangout for locals. As is the case with most good restaurants, the quality of the food can be directly correlated to the length of the line to order it—and expect to wait. In keeping with the artsy neighborhood vibe, Happy Gillis has gotten creative with the concept of the diner. The dining area is a mix of mismatched retro tables and chairs, vintage couches and pink flamingo salt and pepper shakers, and diners are encouraged to contribute their artistic talents to the décor by creating an Abandoned Art of the Week masterpiece.
Yelp reviews rave on about the sandwiches, breakfasts and salads with one big complaint: Ordering is hard because everything is good. There are a few mainstay crowd favorites, such as the Cello-esque, Happy Gillis’ take on a breakfast BLT ($10), and for lunch, long-cooked broccoli sandwiches ($8), the Smashed Meatball sandwich ($10) or the Tuna White Bean ($9) are excellent.
Next door, Uncommon Stock (549 Gillis) offers handcrafted soups that are, as their sign suggests, “stolen from grandmothers globally.” Lucky for us, the grandmothers don’t seem to mind. Soup specials are on regular rotation, with three varieties offered weekly on Friday, Saturday and Sunday in quart-sized containers (most for around $12 a quart). The soups are seasonal and taste black-market good—fitting, as Uncommon Stock’s small storefront isn’t easy to spot. Try the Burmese Chicken Curry, Armenian Apricot or the Not-So-Traditional Gazpacho.
As you might expect from a neighborhood that once housed most of Kansas City’s Italian-American population, this area is rich in Italian-inspired restaurants. Perhaps the most well-known of these is Garozzo’s (526 Harrison). Now offering locations across the metro, Garozzo’s Columbus Park restaurant is the original incarnation, and it remains a popular destination for locals and visitors. It is in these walls that chicken Spiedini first graced a Kansas City dinner plate, and for foodies in the making, dinner among these Rat Pack-lined walls is a must.
At nearby The North End (910 E. 5th St.), Italian fare comes with a history lesson. This restaurant, known for decades as LaSala’s, has served up deli classics from the LaSala family recipe book for more than a century. Neighborhood favorites include the Don Bosco (Italian hot beef with giardiniera, $7.49) or the chicken Alfredo sandwich (a to-go version of your favorite pasta, $7.49), and thanks to the close relationship between the LaSala family and the new ownership, the recipes are as authentic as the restaurant itself.
Pandolfi’s Deli (538 Campbell St.) is proof that this neighborhood is still attracting Italian immigrants. Originally located in Liberty, the Italian-American eatery moved to Columbus Park a few years ago in a bid to rekindle its Italian roots. The lunch menu attracts muffaletta lovers from nearby downtown ($7.99 for their signature dish), and boxed lunches are readily available to feed those trapped at the office. As a bonus for eat-in diners, Pandolfi’s welcomes local artists to display in their space.
Adding its own contribution to the neighborhood flavor, Vietnam Café (522 Campbell St.) has become a not-so-well-kept secret in Kansas City’s culinary scene. The always-crowded space is a former drugstore (as one regular puts it, the tin ceilings and floor make more sense with that knowledge in hand) and a hotspot for the Vietnamese population of Columbus Park. Bowls of soup come in legendary size, the banh tom (fried sweet potatoes and shrimp, $4.95) is popular and the spring rolls have become heavy hitters on the city’s “Best Of” lists.
Columbus Park is also home to Kim Long Asian Market (511 Cherry St.), where fruits, spices, fish, noodles and snacks of East Asian origin tempt adventurous chefs with their exotic colors and aromas. Like most places in Columbus Park, this market holds true to its ethnic roots while extending an open hand to its visitors and neighbors. In this neighborhood, blending cultural experiences is just part of the daily norm.