Not feeling the need to drive through late 4/early 5 o’clock traffic on Main Street in downtown Kansas City, I parked my car just outside Union Station and decided to take a ride on the KC Streetcar, which had opened in May. The KC Streetcar has stirred up all kinds of emotions with KC citizens and taxpayers: some think it’s the start of a major change in public transportation in KC that will ultimately make KC more of a major city in the Midwest; some think it’s a waste of taxpayer’s money to satisfy the ego of Mayor Sly James, a train enthusiast, who has made it his main agenda since taking office to get create a major transportation system in the KC Metro area. It’s kind of early to tell what is the right stance on this issue. Sure, it would be nice if the Streetcar would be able to go through red lights, or was on a separate line that wouldn’t interfere with traffic (similar to what I saw in San Jose with their light rail system, which is built in the middle of the street so it doesn’t need to adhere to traffic signals), but it’s a good start for the city in terms of getting people on board with public transportation (which isn’t easy to do in cities in the Midwest outside of Chicago); makes traveling around the downtown area of KC a lot easier (it’s nice that you can go from the River Market to the Crossroads without having to drive around or walk long distance); and the train itself has a sleek design that’s better than other transits I have seen from other major cities (SacTown, you need to get your act together).
Anyways, to bring things back, this isn’t a post about the KC Streetcar (though I probably will write one in due time). In addition to taking the Streetcar to avoid traffic headaches off of Main Street Downtown, I also decided to take it because their Kauffman Center stop took me to 16th street. No, I was not going to the Symphony or to see Los Tigres del Norte perform (or anything perform…it was Wednesday at 5 p.m.). Instead, I was going down the other direction down 16th street, in between Main and Grand, for Happy Hour at a small cocktail lounge called the Belfry.
To be honest, I had never really heard of the Belfry, mostly due to the fact that it sits in a weird “No Man’s Land” between Downtown KC and the Crossroads. I don’t feel anything is “truly downtown” south of Truman Road, but the location of Belfry is a bit north for Crossroads as it would be quite a hike for someone to go there on a First Friday’s. (But hey…Streetcar solves that! So maybe it’s not so bad, taxpaying haters!) And it’s location in between Main and Grand, makes it get ignored in the “what neighborhood does it belong to?” shuffle. To make matters worse in its favor, it doesn’t have that “prime” location off of Main Street that benefits other establishments in the “No Man’s Land” like Anton’s or Nara or Bazooka’s (if you have to ask what kind of place Bazooka’s is…well…it may not be for you and you probably can’t afford it). And yet, despite it’s “humble” location (and establishment, which I will go into more later), the Belfry surprises as an affordable whiskey/beer lounge that offers a down-to-earth atmosphere, as well as competitive fare in comparison to any other “Happy Hour Crowd”-catering bar in the Downtown/Crossroads area.
As you walk down 16th street, the Belfry barely sticks out. The street consists mostly of converted lofts, used for both residential as well as office use, and the Belfry’s exterior blends into those surroundings. If you just took a glance at it, and didn’t know what it was, you probably would confuse it for a Non-Profit office or some “new-age Christian church” that caters to Millennials. But then you take a step inside…
Well, not much else sticks out either (sorry for the dramatic pause). You walk up a small stairwell, and you are greeted with a fork which can take you to two main areas in the complex. Granted, it still has that initial appearance of an office building, but more like one of those “Hmm…this could be a civil engineering or architecture firm” office and less like a “I could probably get my TB test done here” center (which it could also pass for from the outside if you have been to some of those clinics downtown or in midtown). The owner of the Belfry owns the whole building, but the room to the right, spacious and decorated with multiple tables and a bar in the corner, is reserved for special events and parties, and isn’t used regularly, especially during the week and in the afternoon (when I was there).
So, being that the right side was as deserted and gravitating as the ballroom in the Stanley Hotel (and that’s from a non-Jack perspective; Jack would disagree and say that the dining room was the shit), I veered to the left, which was empty, but it at least had a bartender at the counter, cleaning glasses as I walked in. Considering it was just before 5, when most people (unlike myself in the months of June-August) were just getting off of work, the sparseness of the bar didn’t put me off or make me want to go somewhere else (not that I had a choice since I was meeting someone there). It had just opened. And when bars just open, they can be dead. Unfortunately, not every bar or establishment can be like Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas.
The look of the Belfry from the inside is one that is both cozy and modern; minimal meets classic. There are about five-to-six hardwood tall tables with an accompanying four tall stools at each table. In the back corner, to the right of the clock on the wall, a plush four-person couch is designed for people to engage in conversation as a group or get a little “cozy” without crossing the line. And at the bar, about 10-12 tall stools sit at the dark brown, hardwood counter, with flexible backs of the stools that make leaning back an occasional plus. The Belfry doesn’t really try to “wow” their patrons with their interior design, though it’s not off-putting by any means. Think of it as a modernized VFW that can allow anyone in, coupled with the kind of hipster flair one would see from a dining or coffee establishment on the Westside.
What makes the Belfry aesthetically pleasing is behind the bar, as the extensive beer and whiskey selection will make any millennial grow a chest hair in awe. As you can see in the picture above, this is a “whiskey” lounge in every sense of the word. They have probably dozens of selections of bourbons, Scotch whiskeys, Irish whiskeys, you name it. They have local whiskeys like the J. Rieger Kansas City Whiskey, made by the same people who own the Rieger Hotel in the Crossroads, but they also have a lot of nice varieties of the expensive small batch bourbons and Johnny Walker’s as well (I’m talking “Blue Label” shit here). They have a small Gin, Tequila and Vodka selection (as you can see in the bottom right of the photo), but truth be told, the Belfry is about showcasing the whiskey, and in its pure forms. Yes, they can make classic cocktails, but in terms of specialty drinks, they only feature about 8-10. If you do feel the need for something mixed into your whiskey, I would suggest that Grand Fashioned, the Belfry’s take on a classic old-fashioned using J. Rieger bourbon. It’s the kind of drink that will make you feel like Don Draper in “Mad Men” only without the 50’s racism and misogyny.
The Belfry has a quality cocktail selection (the trafficway was also a solid cocktail that utilized Rye), but to be honest, whiskey, especially expensive stuff, is meant to be consumed in its purest forms: single or double, neat. No fancy mixers. No vermouths or shit. Thankfully for whiskey purists, the Belfry adheres to that kind of minimalistic perfection with their expansive whiskey selection. So, to get the full Belfry whiskey experience, find a bourbon or scotch or Irish whiskey on the menu that entices you, order a single (or a double) neat, and just sink it in.
Whiskey may be one of the feature characteristics of the Belfry, but Kansas City is not Tennessee or Kentucky. Kansas City is a beer town, and a growing craft beer city with the rise of Boulevard being served in drinking establishments now all over the country (I have a friend who drinks Boulevard in DC), and more and more smaller craft breweries opening up in the Metro every year. The Belfry also pays homage to KC’s craft beer scene with 20 beers on tap, showcasing everything from IPAs, to Gose’s, to Saisons to even Imperial Stouts. The beers rotate regularly, as evidenced by a clipboard/office paper menu that look similar to the check in sheet I used to have as a RA when freshmen reported to their dorms for orientation day. It’s not fancy, nor is it the kind of feature Jon Taffer would approve of, but I can appreciate such a “low cost” menu design to make sure everything remains accurate on a daily basis. They also have a massive chalkboard near the entrance that lists all 20 beer selections, for over-anxious types (i.e. me) who don’t trust everything on that piece of paper on the clipboard. For those looking for a suggestion, the Great Divide Yeti, an Imperial Stout from Colorado, is a beer enthusiasts’ pound of pure, with the dark coffee/chocolate appearance and taste one would expect from an Imperial Stout, but not as heavy as the typical IS. And, at 9.4% it also packs a punch, so enjoy 1 or 2 and you’ll be good (though as with any stout, you probably will be good after 1 or 2 anyways, considering they can be filling).
But, any kind of specialty cocktail/craft beer lounge such as the Belfry wouldn’t be good for Happy Hour without a decent food menu. Despite its simple appearance inside, the food is a dantiful surprise, as James Beard Award-winning chef, Celina Tio, who also owns Julian in Brookside, is in charge of the menu at the Belfry. The food is a fusion mix of sorts, ranging from homestyle favorites one would find at a good local cafe, to small-plate dishes (on special during happy hour), to more modern takes on pub food. Yes, you can get a classic burger with fresh cut fries, and the rigatoni entices with fresh ricotta cheese, a chunky tomato sauce, and spicy Italian sausage that tastes like it came from a local butcher shop. (Anton’s or Broadway Butcher perhaps?) However, what really made Tio and the Belfry’s menu stand out was their take on vegetables. Their special pan fried cauliflower has a sweet spicy texture it, with the cauliflower nice and tender, and the spiciness enhancing the flavor of the vegetables, not overpowering it.
And while that was good, it still paled in comparison to their tempura-fried broccoli rabe.
Words cannot describe the balance of the crunchiness of the tempura batter with the honey Sriracha glaze. Yes, you read that right FUCKING HONEY SRIRACHA GLAZE. (I know what you’re thinking: “GTFO!”) An explosion of Asian-American flavors burst through in this dish, as the hot, sweet, salty, and crispy textures made it worth savoring for seconds before going onto the next bite. Tio is an Asian-American chef who holds multiple Asian heritages (with Chinese and Filipino being two of them), and her multi-Asian ethnicity is showcased proudly in this dish, with multiple references to different Asian flavors present. This dish may go under the radar with most patrons. After all, fried broccoli? “Fuck that. I didn’t come to this whiskey and craft beer bar to eat a dish my fucking mom made me eat before I got spumoni ice cream, homie.”
But trust me. The honey sriracha tempura fried broccoli rabe blows flavor gaskets to the 100th degree.
The Belfry may not resonate with everyone. If you want a nicer, more traditional cocktail bar environment, Julep in Westport may be your cup of tea. If you want a cocktail bar with more flair, then Manifesto in the basement of the Rieger Hotel would be a better pick. If you want multitudes upon multitudes of beer selections, than the Ruins in the Crossroads and their self-pour station is your best bet.
But the Belfry is a nice balance. It’s simple. Both in menu and in environment. It’s a great to hang out with people after work or on a lazy afternoon or evening. It’s free of distractions. And despite it’s lack of amenities, the Belfry proves to be a special place where one can grab a bite to eat and a glass of whiskey or pint of craft beer during happy hour. It feels like your place, like your club, like your friend’s gallery or print press in the Crossroads that chills the fuck out on First Friday’s and serves liquor and beer to whoever drops in.
That kind of special environment can not be duplicated with amenities or fancy decorating. It has to be truly genuine for that vibe to be replicated.
Luckily for KC bar and happy hour patrons, the Belfry has that authenticity, and more importantly…charm.