The best dive bars in Kansas City—really, the best dive bars in the lower Midwest, and maybe the country—are quietly clustered in a historically Croatian enclave of Kansas City, Kansas, called Strawberry Hill. They are the best not because of their convivial atmosphere, or their thoughtful selection of beers and spirits, or their charming regulars, or some other measure of what one might think of as a “good time.” They are the best because they are portals to an era that no longer exists in American society. In fact, to call them dives is not quite right. They are more like neighborhood museums that happen to serve Fireball shots.
If you think I’m about to divulge all the tavern secrets I’ve stockpiled in my many years of knocking around Wyandotte County, you’re crazy. That sacred knowledge must be earned, round by round. I don’t mind sharing a few pointers, though.
As I say, the best bars are found in Strawberry Hill, but wander up into the hills south of the Kansas River into a neighborhood called Argentine and you’ll find a friendly little joint called the Coach Lite Club (2103 S. 34th St.). It’s a former Sinclair gas station that was converted into a bar sometime in the 1960s—or so Mike Damron, who owns the place with his wife, Stacy, told me. Coach Lite (incredibly, it does not, and never has, shared any affiliation with Coach Club, located just a few miles away in Armourdale) has a horseshoe bar, a shuffleboard table and a little nook in back where you can make some money playing the machines. It’s cash-only, and bring a little extra: The Damrons’ daughter raises chickens, and if you stop by on the right day, you might be able to leave with some farm-fresh eggs.
Also not technically in Strawberry Hill is Johnnie’s on Seventh (55 S. Seventh St.), though it’s pretty darn close. The bar is named after Johnnie Baska, who founded it in 1934. Since 2010, it’s been run by an extremely tall, extremely gregarious gentleman named Chris O’Connor who, as the brother of a woman who married the grandson of Johnnie Baska, has a reasonable claim of legitimacy on the place. Look down and you’re standing atop old black-and-white checkerboard tile; look up and the ceiling’s all black-and-white framed photos of famous men. Drink an Irish whiskey or two at the bar, or shoot a game of pool in the side room and it’ll come to you: All those men on the ceiling are named John.
Years ago, a guy by the name of Foots used to run illegal card games out of the back room at Sammy’s Tavern (222 N. Sixth St.), a low-ceilinged Strawberry Hill corner bar. Most of the judges, politicians and other local muckety-mucks who participated are long dead, but Sammy’s pays tribute to the legacy with a couple of poker paintings and a hard-to-miss “We don’t want nobody nobody sent” attitude toward interlopers. The building in which Sammy’s sits is owned by Joni Bocelewatz, who also owns Fat Matt’s Vortex (411 N. Sixth St.) just a couple of blocks north. Bocelewatz bought the place in 2004; up to that point, it was unofficially known as a whites-only club. She desegregated the bar and played up the less problematic parts of the building’s history, namely the fact that there’s a crematorium in the basement dating back to its days as Stein Funeral Home. (You’re unlikely to get a peek of the crematorium: Bocelewatz rents out the basement to the Iron Order Motorcycle Club.) Hang around Fat Matt’s and you’ll hear talk of spirits both ethereal and literal—shots of “Grog,” a mystery concoction, go for three dollars.
Speaking of prices, at Breit’s Stein and Deli (412 N. Fifth St.), a pint of Guinness is four dollars and the popular Reuben sandwich is $5.45 (including chips!). The bar, formerly a pool hall called Stanko’s, sat dormant for thirty-two years until 2002, when a 1974 graduate of Bishop Ward High School named Bob Breitenstein decided he wanted to open up a neighborhood joint on “the Hill.” These days, it attracts an older crowd of city employees, Ward graduates and Breitenstein family members (“It’s a pretty big family,” Bob told me).
Not everything is Old World in Strawberry Hill. Danny Dumovich is a former Breit’s bartender who is now one of the owners of Chicago’s (534 Central Ave.), which could be thought of as a kind of descendant of Breit’s: sportsy, lots of millennial-aged Ward grads and BPU employees, but not quite the same time-capsule feel (a Jimi Hendrix painting on the wall, a popular beer-pong tournament held every February). Owner Artie Scholes keeps a smart selection of craft beer and pinball machines at 403 Club (614 Reynolds Ave.), just north down the hill from Chicago’s.
The building at 204 Orchard was once home to View on the Hill, one of the metro’s oldest gay bars. It closed in 2014, and a few years later Mockingbird Lounge (204 Orchard St., KCK) debuted in the space, serving trendy Mezcals and Japanese whiskies and Pisco sours in coupe glasses. It is, without question, the nicest bar in KCK.
And at The Easy Inn (322 N. Sixth St.), the newest arrival in the area, you’ll find Edison bulbs dangling above picnic tables on the back patio, retro garage-rock dudes in tank tops and tattoos covering arms that definitely do not belong to sailors or military veterans. It is—there is no other way to put it—a hipster bar. It’s a pretty good one, though. And, anyway, nothing gold ever stays.