During the 1920s and 1930s, Kansas City earned a reputation for its raucous nightlife — one it wore with pride. As America attempted to enforce booze-free morality during Prohibition, liquor still flowed like water in Kansas City’s saloons and speakeasies thanks to political boss Tom Pendergast.
Unquestioningly corrupt, the Pendergast political machine was the real law of the land, bribing law enforcement to look the other way regarding alcohol sales, gambling and other illicit activities.
Word quickly spread that Kansas City was a good-time town, and as partyers, musicians and others flocked here, an article in the Omaha World-Herald made a connection between Kansas City and the City of Light.
“If you want to see some sin, forget about Paris and go to Kansas City,” wrote famed journalist Edward Morrow in 1938, comparing Paris’ gambling joints, brothels and bars to the red-light districts of Kansas City.
Thus, the city’s nickname, “Paris of the Plains,” was born, along with a vibrant jazz district and cocktail culture. Nearly a century later, KC’s dynamic cocktail scene is booming once again, welcoming intrigued tipplers in search of the most interesting libations in the country. Here are six places to explore.
Kansas City is about as far away as you can get from Hawaii, but that didn’t stop the city from developing a thriving Tiki bar scene.
Named the world’s best Tiki bar in 2017 by Critiki, a travel guide and historic archive of Polynesian pop culture, TikiCat is an underground speakeasy-style oasis filled with authentic decor and a menu of tropical drinks that’ll transport you straight to an island paradise.
The creation of the menu was overseen by mixologist Martin Cate, a well-known Tiki bar owner and author of the James Beard award–winning book “Smuggler’s Cove.” You’ll find classics like the mai tai, zombie and planter’s punch, but take a peek at the “House Flavors” portion of the menu for tropical drinks with a touch of Kansas City, like the Donn Day Afternoon with aged rum, fresh lime juice, cinnamon syrup and grapefruit radler.
Bartender and Manifesto owner, Ryan Maybee, is widely credited for reviving Kansas City’s cocktail scene when he reopened this speakeasy in the basement of The Rieger restaurant back in 2009. That’s right, reopened.
Back in 1915, the restaurant was The Rieger Hotel, hosting both traveling salesmen and businessmen of another nature, like Al Capone, who was known to frequent the original speakeasy during Prohibition. Today, the intimate lounge is classy but relaxed, but the stone walls, exposed piping and call-button entrance give the exciting vibe that you’re getting away with something scandalous.
Toast to the man that birthed speakeasy culture in KC with the Pendergast, a heady blend of Old Grand Dad 100 bourbon, Dolin sweet vermouth, Bénédictine and angostura bitters.
You’ll have to hunt to find Swordfish Tom’s, but that’s part of the fun. Tucked away in a back alley in the city’s Crossroads district, an unassuming gray door printed with the name and hours is your only indication you’ve found the place … sort of.
What you’ve really found is the waiting room, where a red-light/green-light mode of entry stands as a barrier to the 30-seat bar itself. Green light? You’re in luck! Knock on the door to enter one of the most historically accurate speakeasies in the city, meaning there are rules to follow.
Cell phones are restricted, conversations are a bit above a whisper, and it’s cash only, but the thick menu of pre-Prohibition-style cocktails made with hand-cut ice offer an experience unique from any other bar in Kansas City.
Julep Cocktail Club
If you’re a whiskey fan, head straight to Julep Cocktail Club, self-proclaimed curators of fine whiskey and handcrafted cocktails. They serve four versions of their namesake drink, the most unique being the Decadent & Depraved, made with Old Overholt Rye, PX Sherry, sugar and mint.
Then there are the seasonal, whiskey-anchored potions like the Horsefeather, with Ezra Brooks Rye, ginger, lemon, sparkling water and angostura bitters. Clear liquor drinkers can find something on the menu, as well, like the vodka-based London Calling cocktail, accompanied with cucumber, lime, ginger and sparkling water, which can also be served by the pitcher.
The Monarch Cocktail Bar & Lounge
This polished, upscale cocktail concept in the Country Club Plaza neighborhood welcomes guests into a brightly lit space that dazzles — complete with an oversize, white-marble center bar; plush velvet seating; and a statement chandelier crafted with 1,000 acrylic monarch butterflies.
The impressive, nearly 40-page menu is presented as a leather-bound tome filled with seasonal cocktails categorized by the migratory patterns of the monarch butterfly and inspired by regional flavors, with categories like “Floribbean,” “Mid-America” and “Trans-Atlantic Crossing.”
Since you’re in Kansas City, try the King Palm 2.0 from the Mid-America menu, made with local J. Rieger & Co. Midwestern Dry Gin, kefir whey, coconut water, cinnamon, lemongrass and red wine.
Standing for “South of Truman Road,” SoT has a hidden aspect to it, but it’s most certainly not a speakeasy. Tucked among the buildings of the Crossroads Arts District, SoT has an enviable back garden area strewn with twinkling lights, perfect for sipping elevated cocktails on clear autumn nights.
The menu changes seasonally, and the bar team isn’t afraid to use quirky ingredients, like Cel-Ray celery soda in the Cel-Ray Showdown, with jalapeño and pineapple-infused Blanco tequila, lemon and green Chartreuse.
If it’s too chilly to drink outside, grab the love seat overlooking Grand Boulevard and try the warming What Bees Do During Winter cocktail, made with Indian spice-infused gin, lemon, honey and carrot-coconut foam.