An Age of Renaissance for Kansas City’s Westport

Kansas City’s most historic entertainment district has a bright future as the go-to spot for the best homegrown restaurants and cocktails bars.

Story by Kelsey Cipolla  |  Photos by David Allison

If your memories of Westport are filled with bars and nightclubs, it’s high time you took a return trip. While there are still more than a few places to enjoy a drink, the neighborhood once known for its hard-partying ways has grown up, now featuring the city’s most diverse collection of locally owned establishments ranging from coffee shops and boutiques to award-winning fine dining restaurants and cocktail bars. And it’s not done growing. Meet the next generation of hot spots helping to put Westport back on top.

Chef Howard Hanna wanted to introduce Champagne to the people of Kansas City in an accessible way with Ça Va, which pairs the bubbly beverage with simple yet refined food items. The bar serves 32 sparkling wines from France, Italy, Spain and the United States.

Drinking Destinations

In a neighborhood full of beer joints, The Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange chef and owner Howard Hanna found the perfect place for his new Champagne bar, Ça Va.

“We’re doing a product with a really strong history coming from France, but at the same time, the kind of people we are and the kind of businesses I’m interested in, like The Rieger, are about Kansas City. It’s about our past and our present and our future,” Hanna says. “To be able to do something in Westport where there’s such a rich history to draw on is really important to me.”

Ça Va offers 32 varieties of sparkling wines ranging from big names to small labels and wine makers. Hanna designed the menu, which features marinated olives, cheese from Missouri’s Green Dirt Farms, The Rieger’s beloved pork soup and other simple yet refined fare, to pair well with the bubbly beverage.

“We really want people to open their minds to champagne and give it a chance as an everyday table wine that is wonderful with food,” Hanna says.

Ça Va isn’t the only new bar serving up the unexpected. Acclaimed Manifesto bartender Beau Williams and wife Keely Edgington are putting a southern spin on KC’s drink scene with their whiskey-centric cocktail bar Julep.

The duo that made waves with their cocktail catering company Hawthorne and Julep knows that people will go out of their way for a quality drink, especially when it’s paired with pimento cheese, po’ boys, deviled eggs and other delectable snack items showcased on a menu designed by John Brogan, chef de cuisine at Rye. And calling Westport home at a time when so many other new places to enjoy dinner and drinks are opening certainly won’t hurt business.

Beau Williams and Keely Edgington bring the South to the Midwest with Julep. The whiskey cocktail bar offers a convivial atmosphere and a modern interpretation of southern style that extends beyond the drinks to the menu and decor, which features plush fabrics, a herringbone wood floor and pops of bold color.

“Westport is really coming into its own,” Edgington says. “It’s got a diverse, eclectic audience, and it’s been here forever. It’s timeless.”

Gourmet snacks and libations also marry happily at Bridger’s Bottle Shop, where thirsty patrons can choose from more than 600 bottled beers of all styles and get guidance on what they might enjoy. They’ll also learn how to create the perfect pairing with a very different kind of bar snack, courtesy of Local Pig’s Alex Pope, who is operating Preservation Market out of the store.

The counter service restaurant’s name, a nod to how barley was preserved in beer before refrigeration, carries over to the menu Pope created with executive chef Andrew Heimburger, featuring creative takes on preserved food, including lots of pickled items, smart sandwiches and charcuterie plates.

After years in the East Bottoms, expanding into Westport and becoming part of its ever-evolving food scene presents an exciting opportunity for Pope and the bottle shop that has him on its side.

“There’s a lot of new talent coming in, a lot of chef-based places,” says Bridger’s co-owner Aaron Beatty. “It’s not your ‘drop it in a fryer until it floats and put it on a plate’ Westport anymore.”

Elevated Eats

The neighborhood’s newest restaurants guarantee you won’t want go home without a taste of local flavor.

Cucina della Ragazza boasts a warm, intimate atmosphere encouraged by the 40-seat space’s brick walls, tin ceiling, wood floors and a fireplace that serves as a focal point, as well as a menu inspired by owner Laura Norris’ many visits to delis across the country and family recipes. Serving authentic food and creating a cozy feel was essential to Norris’s vision for her first restaurant.

Laura Norris serves up authentic Italian dishes inspired by her family recipes, including a super-sized meatball, at Cucina della Ragazza, Westport’s new deli and wine bar. Brick walls, wood floors and a prominent fireplace give the space a sense of warmth and history that was vital to Norris’s vision of her first restaurant.

“For me, it’s really about being able to reuse a space that’s well designed,” Norris says of her decision to come to Westport. “The historic nature of the space creates a warmth that you can’t get typically in new construction.”

Other new additions to the neighborhood’s culinary scene include the Westport Ale House, an American beer and burger-centric sports bar, and Baked in Kansas City, a bakery and full-service restaurant from The Majestic Restaurant owner Frank Sebree.

A need for fresh bread at The Majestic Restaurant led owner Frank Sebree to open Baked in Kansas City, which offers fresh baked breads and pastries as well as full brunch, lunch and dinner menus.

Baked, like many Kansas City Westport neighborhood businesses, tries to buy what it can’t make from local producers. It’s that local-first attitude that makes the neighborhood an inspired fit for many businesses moving in, says Ernesto Peralta, owner of Blanc Burgers + Bottles, which returned to Westport with a delicious lineup of inventive, gourmet burgers, flavorful fries and a more evolved look in February after leaving its original Westport Road location in 2010 for a more high profile spot on the Country Club Plaza.

After several years at the Country Club Plaza, Blanc Burgers + Bottles brought its gourmet burgers back to Westport, where owner Ernesto Peralta opened the first location in 2008.

“People will support local businesses before they will support the bigger chains,” Peralta says. “Westport is all about local people, local owners, local support and local flavor.”

Nobody knows the benefits of doing business in Westport like James Westphal, who opened McCoy’s Public House in 1997 and later introduced The Foundry to KC. With fewer costs associated with doing business and more around the clock foot traffic than many other Kansas City entertainment areas, it’s hard to find another location that can compare.

That’s why he’s once again betting on the Kansas City Westport district by opening Char Bar, a new restaurant showcasing the art of smoking meats and Americana amusements in what was once the Beaumont Club.

Much like the historic buildings getting new life, the neighborhood finds itself in the throws of reinvention.

“In Kansas City, people hold onto the perception of Westport as a bar district from back in the 80s and 90s,” Westphal says, adding that the neighborhood has changed over the years to become a true entertainment district.

We can’t wait to see its next act.