It sits on a hilltop in Kansas City between downtown and Crown Center: The Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, perhaps the real crown for the area, seems to preside over the next generation of a city that re-creates itself again and again. Designed by the renowned architect Moshe Safdie, one half-expects the Millenium Falcon to swoop under the immense canopy that fronts the building with its shell-shaped roof.
Given the twin risings of the roof, it's no surprise that there are two halls. The handsome Muriel Kauffman Theatre is the home for Kansas City Ballet and Lyric Opera of Kansas City, with an immense orchestra pit, lots of fly space for scenery and modern lighting that refers to the chandeliers traditional found in European opera houses. Instead of supertitles, each seatback has a personal monitor for performances needing translation.
Helzberg Hall, though, is what produces gasps. Lined with wood, the feeling is warm and intimate, like being inside a large wooden ship. This, despite seating 1,600, with 40 percent of the seats alongside or behind the orchestra. The acoustics already are famous, and even the heating and cooling system has been created especially to avoid noise, as well as cold spots.
The center also is open for tours, although the areas visited may be curtailed by rehearsals. No food on site except a bar, but there are, of course, ways of handling that.
While culture and 'cue are the watchwords here, on the same block as the Kauffman is an old school that proves the exception: Webster House is definitely not a barbecue spot, but the setting is great, the food gets very high ratings for lunch, dinner and tea. And the ground-floor shops are very tempting.
For barbecue, arguments break out over which is the best, just like in St. Louis. The classics are Arthur Bryant's and Gates Bar-B-Q. These days, both have several locations, a common practice among KC's more popular barbecue pits. Bryant's strength is in its brisket, Gates goes for the pleasures of the pig. But newer spots are strong challengers. Fiorella's Jack Stack, also with multiple locations, has excellent sides, and is a little more upscale in feeling.
I'm happy eating at any of those places. But on a recent trip, I forewent my old spots and tried two others. Oklahoma Joe's Bar-B-Que's three locations are all on the Kansas side, but that's no problem, since there's no river here dividing the states. The original—in a gas station which they've practically overwhelmed—is larger than it looks, very friendly and has had such national publicity, there are almost always lines. Persist—it’s worth it. The ribs are spectacular—moist and tender, good on their own or with their sauce, which is tomato-based with an almost citrus tang and a little heat. (The hot sauce on the tables is remarkable, too.) To me, the brisket beats out the pork. And serious fries, although they don't travel well.
LC's Bar-B-Q appears to be a roadside tavern in a residential area at the edge of the city. Smoke has stained the simple interior, including the windows, and of course, lingers in the air. This is barbecue as it always used to be. And it's wonderful, particularly the rib tips, an option that's uncommon in Kansas City. But these are less gristly and fatty than any I've had, with a sharp, complex sauce that mutters about cumin and then gets even more mysterious. Huge servings, by the way, and another fine offering of french fries.
Don't miss the Kauffman, but don't make me choose just one barbecue spot.
If you go:
Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts
1601 Broadway, Kansas City, MO
Arthur Bryant's BBQ
1727 Brooklyn Ave., Kansas City, MO and other locations
3205 Main St., Kansas City, MO and other locations
Fiorella's Jack Stack
101 W. 22nd St., Kansas City, MO and other locations
Oklahoma Joe's Bar-B-Que
3002 W. 47th St., Kansas City, KS and other locations
5800 Blue Parkway, Kansas City, MO