It's just before midnight on a Friday in early October — excellent drinking weather — and the Waldo bars hubbed around the intersection of 75th Street and Wornall are teeming with partiers. Don't be fooled by its casual name: Quinton's Bar & Deli is a hulking nightclub after dark, with strobe lights, beefy bouncers, and hip-hop and dance music blaring over the speakers. Fifty feet across Wornall, in front of the Shot Stop, you can hear every word of every song: Hey, say hey, baby I got your money.
The Shot Stop, an import from the nearby college town of Manhattan, Kansas, serves somewhere in the vicinity of 80 specialty shots, most of them designed to get the people who drink them as fucked up as possible in the shortest amount of time. An entire column on the menu is reserved for "bombs": various combinations of liquor and energy drinks. Also available for those seeking a pick-me-up is the "Liquid Cocaine" shot, a mélange of Bacardi 151, Jägermeister and Rumple Minze.
A wobbly 20-something in a halter top clutches a man's arm as they stumble out of the Shot Stop and head a few doors north. They walk past Tanner's, a neighborhood sports bar that, like Quinton's, stays open until 3 a.m. They cross 74th Terrace and head into the Well, an upscale restaurant-lounge where post-collegiate dating rituals are playing out in real time. Later, they'll flag one of the many taxis circling this square block or cross Wornall for some late-night eats at Pickleman's (open until 3 a.m.). Hookah Haven, a recently opened tobacco lounge at 7424 Wornall, also welcomes guests until that hour.
"It's more of a late-night crowd here in Waldo lately," says Bette Smith, co-owner of Dave Smith the Lamp Maker, a business operating in the heart of Waldo for going on 45 years. "But if you think about it, Waldo has always been a bit of a bar district."
Smith is right. Quinton's was previously Hannibal's, and before that Fin's, and before that just plain old Waldo Bar. Tanner's and Bobby Baker's Lounge also go back decades in this stretch of the neighborhood.
But those were mostly dive bars, the kind where old men sat on bar stools in silence and stared at crummy TVs. In recent years, the Waldo bar crowd has grown younger and wilder: The bar patrons are in their 20s and 30s, and many of them come in from suburbs such as Olathe, Blue Springs and Leawood. Pub crawls, like the Waldo Crawldo, draw crowds in the thousands to the neighborhood.
Gentrification typically follows a rough pattern: Artist types move into a cheap neighborhood, open coffee shops and music venues; yuppies seeking authenticity follow, driving up rents and bringing with them wine bars and boutique shops; artist types get priced out; then come the Jäger bombs and the sports bars.
But that's not really the story of Waldo, which seems to have skipped a few of those steps. How does a sleepy, family-friendly business district become a major nightlife destination without any formal city planning, à la Power & Light? And what does this new landscape mean for this independently minded neighborhood moving forward?
I don't like that term, 'nightlife district,' " says Chris Lewellen, owner of Lew's Grill & Bar and the Well in Waldo. "I think it makes us apprehensive here in the neighborhood. We don't want to be what Westport was in the '80s or what the Power & Light District is now. We don't have large clubs and piano bars. We don't have food trucks outside. I think if people want to do a bachelor party, they think P&L. If they want a mellower party, there's Waldo."