Who knew that a mere four-hour drive along Interstate-70 would transport you to shopping euphoria, plus world-class dining and cultural attractions to boot? Our recent extended weekend in Kansas City did just that, reintroducing us to this ‘Heart of America’ in more ways than one.
Our destination was The Country Club Plaza, south of downtown Kansas City. Opened in 1922 as the nation’s first suburban shopping center, The Plaza was the vision of real estate tycoon J.C. Nichols, who transformed the once undesirable Brush Creek area into the premium, 15-block district it is today. It boasts more than 120 shops, including some of the world’s swankiest retailers (Armani, Burberry, Valentino and Tiffany, among others), and also is home to a veritable feast of dining experiences, from dim sum and upscale barbecue joints to fancy cafés and sweet shops. And if you didn’t come to shop or eat, The Plaza’s renowned Spanish architecture, European-style courtyards, fountains, outdoor art and free concerts are enough to keep you interested.
And what could be more indulgent than staying just steps away from it all? Our lodging choice, The Raphael Hotel, has been named one of the world’s best hotels by Travel+Leisure magazine for two years running. The Raphael’s Italian Renaissance Revival building is on the National Register of Historic Places, and rightfully so. The lobby, with its mahogany-paneled ceilings, ornate woodwork and travertine marble floors, reminded us of a bygone era. The special touches continued into our wellequipped King Plaza Suite (from $229/night), which, in addition to amenities like mahogany furnishings, a marble bath, flat-screen TVs and high-speed Internet, provided us a magnificent view all day long. Our mornings began with the sun rising over Brush Creek and ended with a glimpse of The Plaza’s vibrant nighttime silhouette.
The hotel staff was friendly and attentive, and had a way of making everyone feel special. Some of the extras include refreshments in the lobby in the morning and evening and weekend classical concerts right on the Raphael lawn—a real treat!
Located on the hotel’s lower level is Chaz on the Plaza, The Raphael’s fine dining restaurant that’s quickly becoming a favorite among locals and visitors alike. Chaz’s executive chef is Atlanta native Charles d’Ablaing, whose Southern influences on the menu are definitely worthy of attention. Don’t miss the Savannah Style Crab Cakes, Petite Filet and especially the Fried Green Tomatoes.
Speaking of food, many consider a meal at The American Restaurant (in nearby Crown Center) to be the quintessential Kansas City dining experience. During our visit, executive chef Debbie Gold, a James Beard Best Chef honoree, wowed us with Pork Belly Hash, Heirloom Tomato Salad, and the signature Piedmontese Cote de Boeuf—honest-to-goodness American cuisine, all created with local, farm-fresh ingredients.
In addition, the award-winning wine list features some 1,500 bottles, many of which were procured during general manager/wine director Jamie Jamison’s trips to wine regions around the world. Have a taste for Riesling from a particular region in Germany? Don’t be surprised if it shows up on your table just moments later. And the desserts—oh, the desserts—are unforgettable. Ours included made-from-scratch Key Lime Pie Cake and Nickers Bar, a chocolate torte with cashew caramel, sea salt ice cream and bacon candy.
In between shopping trips the next day, we did take some time to explore The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, located just a few blocks east of our hotel. The museum, home to more than 33,500 works of art, is best known for its collection of Asian art, European and American paintings and modern sculpture.
Our visit coincided with the museum’s Monet Water Lilies exhibit, which will soon make its way to the Saint Louis Art Museum. As expected, viewing all three panels of the Monet water lily triptych (together for the first time in more than 30 years!) took our breath away; and you can bet we’ll be seeing it again—and again—when the exhibit comes here next month.
From the museum, we headed a couple miles north to the city’s iconic beacon, as if guided by the Liberty Memorial’s eternal flame itself. Built in the early 1920s, the 217-foot tower requires an elevator ride and 45-step climb, but it’s well worth it for the open-air observation deck that puts the downtown Kansas City skyline on full display.
The Memorial was designated by Congress as the National World War I Museum in 2004. From its somber, underground entrance hall to the exhilarating ride up the tower, the museum takes visitors on a psychological journey that underscores scope and continuing impact of the ‘Great War.’ Rare treasures to be found include a battle-scarred tank, the flag from General Pershing’s headquarters and wool socks knitted by First Lady Edith Wilson.
For dinner that night, we took a short walk from our hotel to the fabled Plaza III The Steakhouse. Since 1963, the restaurant has played host to many a glitterati, including Bette Midler, who celebrated a milestone birthday there some years ago. These days, actor Paul Rudd, who grew up in nearby Overland Park, Kan., is somewhat of a regular. So is football’s Dick Vermeil. And we’re told that baseball great Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners has made eating at Plaza III such a post-game ritual that the kitchen stays open late whenever his team is in town.
With or without the A-list endorsements, Plaza III has established itself quite well in a town where beef reigns supreme. Each steak served is customselected at the restaurant’s own meat company, where the beef is wet-aged for 21 to 28 days. We opted for the melt-in-your-mouth Filet Mignon and the flavorful Kansas City Strip. And we couldn’t resist the creamy White Cheddar Potatoes and the buttery Sauteed Fresh Mushrooms to keep our steaks company. Oh, and don’t forget to peruse the restaurant’s wine list—the recipient of more than a dozen Wine Spectator awards over the years.
Kansas City restaurants never let you leave hungry, that’s for sure. And if you’re staying on The Plaza, there’s a good chance you won’t leave emptyhanded from all the shopping, either. Truth be told, there was too much shopping, too little time.
Speaking of shopping, most of us usually get in the mood come Thanksgiving—and by design, that’s when the world-famous Plaza lights officially get turned on. Who are they kidding? As if we need any more incentive to shop…on The Plaza.