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.
Half a block down, a trio of partners — Howard Hanna (head chef at the Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange, recently nominated for a James Beard Award), bartender Justin Norcross and Jim Coley (wine director at Gomer's) — opened Ça Va, a champagne bar, in early March. It has been jampacked from its first night.
Around the corner, Bret Springs and Zach Marten's Westport Ale House has also just opened, in the former Streetside Records space, with a lineup of craft beers and thoughtful bar food. And in a month or so, Beau Williams, the general manager and head bartender at Manifesto, debuts his whiskey-centric bar, Julep, next door to Port Fonda.
These new ventures join Blanc Burgers + Bottles, across the street at 4120 Pennsylvania, which just returned to Westport after ending a Plaza tryst that started in 2010. Meanwhile, Aaron Confessori's French-leaning Westport Café and Bar — which took Blanc's former space, at 419 Westport Road — quietly continues to be one of the city's premier date spots. (Though the five-table Italian bistro Cucina della Ragazza, at 301 Westport Road, is giving it a run for its money.)
This new Westport, then, looks something like the more gentrified parts of Brooklyn: smart, artisanal, local. And any resemblance is intentional.
"We want to be a part of bringing a new clientele to Westport," Williams says. "We're not necessarily going to be trying to pull the kids who go to Gusto into our place. I think we're probably going after the types of people who would probably never consider going to Gusto in the first place."
"What I like is that there's all this young blood among the restaurateurs in the neighborhood right now," says Westport Ale House's Springs. "There's a lot of guys around their 30s — Howard, Patrick, Alex Pope, Beau, Aaron Confessori, Zach and I — doing exciting concepts and really putting money into the neighborhood."
"It's definitely getting to be a more mature demographic — closer to 30 years old than 21," says James Westphal, who co-owns McCoy's, the Foundry, Beer Kitchen and, soon, Char Bar, a barbecue-and-beer joint set to open in the fall in the former Beaumont Club space.
And yet, Westport bars catering more to that younger, Fireball-and-RumChata-shots crowd are seeing bumps in business as well. Nigro says Buzzard Beach just signed a 20-year lease and is fresh off a record year. Kyle Kelly, owner of Kelly's Westport Inn, reports that 2012 and 2013 were the two best years the bar — the oldest in Kansas City, depending on how you count — has ever had. Harry's Bar & Tables, once the quiet, mature older sibling of the district, is now regularly slammed on weekends; manager Jeremy Roth confirms that sales have risen over the past two years.
Westphal, whose company arguably has more at stake than any other operator in Westport, says he thinks the district is beginning to recognize its true potential.
"I've felt for a while that Westport should be aiming to be something more like Lincoln Park in Chicago or Central West End in St. Louis — a historic part of the city that mixes nightlife and also nicer restaurants," he says. "And now it's starting to get there. You see tourists, families, college students, businesspeople. On a given Monday, you see art students and architects sharing homemade beer at McCoy's. You see a 56-year-old couple having dinner at Beer Kitchen after a movie at the Tivoli. It's an entertainment district, but it's other things, too."
Williams also sees larger metros as influence and a motivation.
"Back when Patrick was trying to get Port Fonda off the ground, he was pulling day shifts at the Rieger. And we shared a space in the kitchen there. I'd be doing prep work for Manifesto, and he'd be doing prep work for the food truck," Williams says. "So we'd talk — we're both pretty opinionated guys. And we found we both really loved the food and booze scene in Chicago, not just the product but the experience, the way the interior design of a lot of the places up there set them a notch above what was going on in KC at the time — kind of like New York but cheaper and a little more accessible. Which is why it's really cool to me that, a few years later, we've actually been able to make those ideas real here in Westport."
Bridger's Bottle Shop
510 Westport Road
Niche: An overwhelming selection of craft beers, for taking home or consuming on-site
The basics: More than 600 beers from all over the planet, plus a new venture from Alex Pope (Local Pig) called Preservation Market, which will supply meats, cheeses and breads to accompany the suds. The place is named after Jim Bridger, a 19th-century mountain man who did business in Westport back in the day, and the interior is accordingly rustic.
"It's kind of like a liquor store in terms of the way we operate it," partner Eric Flanagan says. "You just grab beer out of the coolers and either drink it here or bring it home. There won't be table service, just busers. And there won't be a lot of six packs — it'll mostly be mix-and-match six-packs. A lot of craft-beer drinkers don't want to drop $10 on a six-pack they might not like."
Open: Later this month.
Niche: Smoked meats and craft beers, plus the old Westport Beach Club patio, from James Westphal and Mark Kelpe (McCoy's, the Foundry, Beer Kitchen)
The basics: Westphal and Kelpe have been keen on craft beers at their restaurants since 1997, when McCoy's opened for business. Char Bar will continue the tradition and add some bar games to the mix: outdoor pingpong, a foosball table, possibly a croquet course on the patio.
"Foodwise, we're specializing in smoked meats — there'll be many different styles of KC barbecue represented — but also offering strong vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options, which we believe is important," Westphal says. "As far as the beers, it'll be less like McCoy's, which specializes in its own house-made beers, and more like the Foundry or Beer Kitchen, which celebrate craft beer in a wider way."
Projected opening: September
The Westport Saloon
Niche: Folk- and country-music venue, plus comfort food
The basics: This space was formerly occupied by Dark Horse Tavern and Torre's Pizza, which served slices in the back. Now Westport Saloon books a slate of solid local music on its stage, while the kitchen makes dishes such as pork-belly bahn mi and a chicken-and-waffles sandwich from Eat Me Gourmet. It's an upgrade by just about any metric. (We recommend Sunday's Backsliders Brunch, an all-you-can-eat buffet featuring a bloody-mary bar and live gospel music from noon to 4 p.m.)
"We're serving American roots music and whiskey in a comfortable setting, with delicious food to top it all off, and we're doing it at reasonable prices," manager Travis Fields says. "That's pretty much our sales pitch."
Niche: Champagne bistro from Howard Hanna and Justin Norcross (both of the Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange) and Jim Coley (wine director at the midtown Gomer's location)
The basics: In addition to several champagnes (most by the bottle, a few by the glass), this intimate, 32-seat space serves champagne cocktails, savory bites from local producers (Tamworth prosciutto from La Quercia in Iowa, pit ham from Paradise Locker Meats in Trimble, Missouri) and, brilliantly, Miller High Life — the champagne of beers.
"So far, we're drawing the diverse clientele we were hoping for: people in fancy clothes on their way to the Kauffman but also younger people who hang around Westport and just pop in for a drink," Hanna says. "We want people to use us in different ways."
Julep Cocktail Club
Niche: Whiskey bar from Beau Williams (Manifesto) and his wife, Keely Edgington
The basics: An emphasis on American whiskeys, whiskey flights and a light-food menu featuring the type of low-country Southern dishes that go well with whiskey.
"Manifesto is great for what it is, but you usually have to call ahead, and there's only so many seats," Williams says. "Julep's a totally different animal. We're going for a more convivial atmosphere where people can mingle. Standing room is allowed and encouraged. Whiskey is the focus, and I've created a lot of drinks you can't get anywhere else. But the appeal will be broader. We'll have a wine list, and I imagine we'll be popping beer tops and pouring vodka tonics for big portions of the night. We're trying to appeal as much to the shot-and-a-beer crowd as to the specialty-cocktail crowd."
Projected opening: Late April
Westport Ale House
Niche: Upscale sports bar from the pair behind the Plaza's Coal Vines pizza and wine bar
The basics: American craft beers on tap and 40 other canned beers. The menu includes a variety of flat-patty burgers (such as the Q: an old-fashioned double-decker with pecan-smoked bacon, smoked gouda, stout barbecue sauce and crispy onion straws), Maryland crab tots, and a Kentucky Hot Brown.
"We felt like Westport didn't exactly have the type of sports bar where it's almost an extension of your living room, where you can watch the games and get damn good food," co-owner Bret Springs says.