Our eating in Kansas City began at the original gas station location of Joe’s Kansas City, a few hours after our arrival. When I say the “original” location I don’t mean to suggest that this is a very old restaurant: it opened in the late 1990s. Arthur Bryant’s, where we ate lunch the next day, on the other hand goes way back to the beginnings of Kansas City barbecue, being indeed the place where the genre solidified and gained renown. The original proprietor, Henry Perry, the “father of Kansas City barbecue, had begun to sell his wares in the early decades of the 20th century, first at a stand and then to a restaurant in the 18th and Vine neighbourhood. On his death Perry’s business passed to his employee, Charlie Bryant in 1940 and his brother Arthur took over in 1946 and moved the restaurant to its current location at 18th and Brooklyn in 1949. (All this information is from Wikipedia, in case you’re wondering.)
Since then the restaurant has become and stayed a legend, even after Arthur Bryant’s passing. It is here that the Kansas City barbecue staple of burnt ends (of brisket) became a defining thing and the restaurant has been one of the stations of the barbecue cross for devotees, high and low, for more than 50 years. Calvin Trillin famously declared it “possibly the single best restaurant in the world” in 1974. Most Kansas City barbecue aficionados would disagree that it’s even been the best barbecue restaurant in the city for some time now (Joe’s routinely gets more votes for that position) but it is my proposition that when it comes to high quality barbecue it is pointless after a point to quibble over fine distinctions—and I would certainly say that what we ate at Arthur Bryant’s was high quality barbecue.
What is absolutely uncontroversial, however, is that the atmosphere of Arthur Bryant’s is not something that can be replicated at a place like Joe’s. No matter how technically accomplished their barbecue might be, even the original gas station location of Joe’s doesn’t really have much of a soul. Arthur Bryant’s, on the other hand, seems as infused by its history as their meat is infused by smoke. Black-owned at birth and for most of its history—though not now—the restaurant is a living reminder of the place of African Americans in the past and present of American barbecue, in Kansas City and beyond. This is not something you can taste exactly but it is part of the experience of eating there.
And what did we eat when we ate there?
There was no way we were not going to try their burnt ends. A bit of looking around on the internet suggested that the best way to eat their burnt ends is in the 3B sandwich where actual burnt ends as byproduct of brisket production are deployed. Elsewhere apparently you are likely getting ersatz burnt ends or brisket smoked to be sold as such. So we got a 3B sandwich. And we got a half pound each of the ribs and the sliced sausage. Potato salad and baked beans on the side. I’m pretty sure I asked for pickles too but they didn’t show up (and I wasn’t charged). Plus one large soda for the boys that came in a large Arthur Bryant’s branded plastic cup that is a nice souvenir in and of itself. Everything was great. The 3B is a much simpler affair than either of the sandwiches we ate at Joe’s but I couldn’t pick between them anyway. The ribs were done perfectly, which is to say giving to the tooth but not falling off the bone. The sliced sausage may have been even better. The baked beans here too have a lot of meat in them—they’re more traditional than at Joe’s—to pick between them is a good problem to have and as a family I think we’d give it to Arthur Bryant’s by a hair. The potato salad would be a less difficult choice: we preferred Arthur Bryant’s sharper version.
Oh yes, the ordering process. You get into the line—which is likely to have many people in it is whenever you go—and you try to figure out what you’re going to get before you get to the first person asking you what you want. That said, perhaps it’s my lovable nature but I was not the most adept customer (I had questions) but I did not receive any of the attitude or impatience some report of the place (nor did I find anything but friendly smiles at Gates’ a couple of days later). But it’s best to have a good idea of what you want before you get to the first ordering station if for no other reason than to not stall the line. And if you have doubts—as for example, I did about whether the sausage is available by the pound—you can always—as I did—ask regulars in line. If you’re eating in the restaurant—which we were—you take the food back to your table. There you will find three bottles of their barbecue sauce which you can use to dress your meat if you like—the default service is un-sauced. I’ve read some critical things about their sauce but we actually liked its cumin-forward acidic bite a lot. Since we’re idiots this was also the only place where we forgot to buy a bottle of their sauce even though it was our favourite. So it goes. We will drive through the city again (the sauce is available online too but at extortionate prices.
For a look at the restaurant and the food launch the slideshow below. Scroll down to see how much it all cost and to see what’s coming next.
I did not preserve my receipt but my credit card statement tells me we paid less than $47 all-in for the whole thing. And we took leftovers back to our apartment. Which tells you it’s an excellent deal.
Coming up next on the restaurant review front? There will not be a Twin Cities report this Tuesday. We are off to Madison for a few days soon and given how much eating out we will be doing there we decided not to eat our last week. So probably another Kansas City meal report—not barbecue this time but Thai.