Ask around, and most bar and restaurant owners will tell you that 2008 was Westport's nadir.
Downtown's bright, shiny, city-subsidized Power & Light District had opened early that year. The city passed an indoor-smoking ban in April. In October, the economy tanked.
"It was a 1-2-3 punch for us," says Bill Nigro, a longtime Westport property owner who now leases space to the Westport Saloon and Buzzard Beach. "From our point of view, it was a situation where it was not only that we were up against a bad economy. The city had also, with Power & Light, actually created another entertainment district to compete with us and target our customers, and not just our customers — the Plaza and Martini Corner, too. And they gave P&L a deal so sweet that, even if it lost money, the city would cover the losses."
Westport had already seen plenty of ups and downs over the previous half-century, and not all of the trouble that the district experienced in the years leading up to 2008 came from economic pressures. If you were partying there in the early aughts, you recall evenings filled with gunshots, mace in the air, and brawls spilling into the streets.
Much of that violence centered on America's Pub, at 510 Westport Road. At the end of 2011, the nightclub's lease expired and was not renewed. This came as a relief to just about every business owner in the district. But it also raised an interesting question: Would sweeping aside the problem child be enough to resuscitate Westport's ecosystem and restore its reputation?
Two years later, the answer looks pretty clear.
Later this month, Bridger's Bottle Shop opens for business at 510 Westport Road. Where America's Pub once spilled Bud Light on your shoes, Bridger's offers more than 600 craft beers for drinking on-site or to take home in bottles. Inside the space is another retailer, Preservation Market — a new venture from Alex Pope, the man behind East Bottoms butcher shop Local Pig — making available a variety of meat and cheese dishes to pair with those small-batch beers.
One suspects that 2 Chainz will not be a mainstay of the loudspeakers here. Eric Flanagan, one of the three principals behind Bridger's, says the partners don't foresee much need to stay open past midnight or 1 a.m., even though the new business has a 3 a.m. liquor license. They were drawn to Westport not by its party-district heritage but by its burgeoning culinary scene.
"We really like the way the neighborhood has been going lately," Flanagan says. "We like the locally owned businesses and all the local chefs and other talented proprietors that are increasingly setting up shop there, in addition to the successful businesses that have been there for years. We really didn't look anywhere else."
As Flanagan notes, Bridger's is joining a wave of new establishments that are reshaping Westport's identity. What was once primarily a drinking destination for the post-college crowd is gradually morphing into a district that boasts some of the most progressive restaurants and bars in Kansas City. Westport is growing up.
"I think Westport is starting to set the standard and raise the bar for drinking and dining in Kansas City," says Patrick Ryan, who opened his food truck turned restaurant, Port Fonda, there in 2012. "It's phenomenal to be here right now and be a part of everything going on."
Ryan deserves some credit for the neighborhood's recent shift. Port Fonda's success in Westport — it has managed to endear itself to midtown cool kids and middle-aged Brookside foodies alike — has inspired other credibly pedigreed restaurateurs to follow suit.