If Madonna has taught us anything over the years, it’s that reinvention is essential. The rejuvenation of the Crossroads and the Downtown corridor are two great examples of this in Kansas City, but there is more happening as we speak. The West Bottoms is currently shedding its cocoon and emerging as a great place for lunch.
The area that was once known for its cattle and livestock exchange is now gussied up with emporiums of upcycling—the antiques markets have taken spaces that had been languishing on the edge of condemnation and turned them into quaint destinations for the discerning decorator. And while First Fridays are bustling in the West Bottoms, the other weekends are picking up steam as well. Now, there are nearly 20 shops open in the West Bottoms each weekend.
So what’s a busy shopper to do when they need to recharge and mount another flight of rickety yet oh-so-charming stairs? Luckily, there is a crop of restaurateurs filling the demand for good food, especially lunch, all within walking distance. EJ’s Urban Eatery, the West Bottoms Kitchen and The Ship are all giving shoppers and downtown workers new options for a tasty bite.
Kansas City has huge diversity in its dining scene, but one cuisine it has always lacked is good Cajun and Southern food. With the opening of EJ’s Urban Eatery and West Bottoms Kitchen, that void is filled with fried green tomatoes, po’ boys, and white BBQ sauce.
EJ’s is the most recent addition to the West Bottoms. Chef John C. Smith slipped into the old Woodsweather Café spot at 1414 West 9th Street and transformed the formerly dingy dining room into an open, airy spot with long tables suitable for family-style dining. Smith, who has a background in fine dining from working under celebrity chef Tom Colicchio at Craft Restaurant, as well as opening several Kansas City favorites such as The Jacobson, 801 Chophouse and Pig and Finch as executive chef, has roots in the south. Although a Chicago native, his visits to see his grandmother in Mississippi resulted in a love of southern cuisine.
After a more recent tour of Nashville, he was inspired by the ‘meat and three’ concept that draws people from across class and racial lines to eat together. His menu reflects those southern influences, not only in form, but also in flavor with options like espresso rubbed brisket with white barbecue sauce and Gulf shrimp in Creole Guinness butter. After choosing a protein from a list of six (although choices rotate so more or fewer may be available), diners choose three sides from options like roasted Brussels sprouts with apples and honey, squash casserole or baked macaroni and cheese.
Smith’s food is the kind that you might find at grandma’s house, if grandma had a background in French technique. Sure, his squash casserole may be just that, a casserole, but it also has white wine and at least two types of squash in it. Instead of green beans boiled with bacon and onions, here you’ll find perfectly sautéed French beans, with just a touch of char. And those Brussels sprouts? Perfectly soft in the middle with the crunchy edges that home cooks salivate for. Add a bite of plump gulf shrimp and you have a perfect lunch.
Right now, EJ’s offers breakfast, lunch, brunch, and happy hour, although he is contemplating dinner service if he sees a demand. In the meantime, if you want the place to yourself, you can rent it out: they also offer the dining room for events.
For a different take on Southern cuisine, head slightly west to the West Bottoms Kitchen, located at 1623 Genesee Street, the most established of the lunch spots we visited. They opened in June of 2016 and have since built quite a following for their elevated takes on classics like the BLT.
West Bottoms Kitchen is co-owned by Executive Chef Jim Hamilton and daughter Hannah Murray. Hamilton is a Joplin native, although from looking at his menu, you would swear he came from Louisiana. In fact, he is just a fan of Southern cuisine and subsequently an apt pupil when traveling. His diligence shows.
The lunch-only menu features homey favorites like shrimp and grits, a blackened meatloaf sandwich and kitchen gumbo. But the one that people come back for is the BLT featuring a cornmealdusted fried green tomato. I would love to say that the tomato is the crowning glory of this sandwich, but the roasted jalapeño goat cheese and buttery brioche steal quite a bit of the spotlight. Paired with kitchen chips, it’s decadent. Paired with kitchen greens—featuring mesclun greens, spicy praline pecans, pickled cranberries and blue cheese in a Creole onion vinaigrette—it’s still decadent. There’s simply no escaping it.
If you’re in the enviable position of being able to drink at lunch, there are a few julep options that make a perfect accompaniment to a sandwich like this. The Smoky Peach is a beautifully balanced cocktail of peach puree, Four Roses bourbon and mint shaken over a smoked ice cube. If you can’t have a boozy lunch, try it at dinner. This winter, the West Bottoms Kitchen will venture into dinner territory on Fridays only.
If you want a larger variety for lunch, go no further than The Ship, located at 1217 Union Avenue. Although it’s known more as a bar and music venue, The Ship started food service in June of this year. The lunch counter overlooks the open kitchen where Executive Chef Ernie Locke is paying homage to Americana cuisine. You can also find a seat in one of the nooks or crannies of the rest of the bar, which is full of vintage kitsch from the original Ship, originally located in downtown Kansas City until 1993.
The menu has something for everyone, even vegetarians. Locke, who lived and cooked in Tampa City, Florida for some time, is happy to see the Cubano sandwich becoming a favorite. Made in traditional Ybor City style, the sandwich features shaved ham, salami, roasted pork loin, Swiss cheese and pickles, all pressed into a French roll. There’s even a vegetarian version, which swaps out the meat for sautéed vegetables and dill cream cheese. Their veggie burger is also made in-house and served with a curry aioli.
Of course, this is Kansas City, and The Ship has ample space for a smoker, so there is barbecue on the menu. In addition to ribs and brisket, the menu features a smoked chicken salad—pulled smoked chicken in a creamy dressing spiced with tarragon and white wine vinegar and dotted with fresh fruit and nuts. Served with greens, it is so satisfying; you almost forget that you were being virtuous when ordering a salad.
If you are so virtuous, you can reward yourself with fresh blueberry cobbler topped with vanilla ice cream. Although the variety may change, there is typically a homey, comforting dessert on offer. If it’s cobbler, get it. You can thank me later. This kind of culinary nostalgia hits all the right marks.
The West Bottoms is the perfect getaway during the workweek. It’s only a short trip down the bridge, but it feels like an escape from the lines and pressure of the normal downtown throng. So, what’s your fancy? Reclaim lunch just the way the antiques hunters have reclaimed the West Bottoms. I think you’ll be glad that you did.
EJ’s Urban Eatery
1414 West 9th St.
West Bottoms Kitchen
1623 Genessee St.
1217 Union Ave.