The twenties marked Kansas City’s emergence as a high-spirited town that flaunted temptations. Boss Tom Pendergast and his political machine worked in lockstep with the police force to allow the city to be a “wide-open town.”
Prohibition officially began in 1920 and lasted until 1933, but Kansas City was largely defiant. Many legitimate breweries, wineries and liquor retailers closed, but vices like bootlegged booze, jazz and gambling flourished in the Paris of the Plains.
If you look carefully, you can still get a taste of the time at contemporary establishments.
429 Walnut St., River Market
THEN: The former Merchants Bank building was once home to Pompeii Cafe, which doubled as a basement speakeasy and cabaret. The joint drew in those who wanted to try the latest risque dances, such as the Black Bottom, Charleston and Cootie Crawl. The cabaret was frequently raided by cops.
NOW: The building houses City Market bistro Brown and Loe, where a glass of wine or a stiff cocktail pairs well with chicken and dumplings or grilled ribeye.
931 Broadway Blvd., Garment District
THEN: During Prohibition, The Fitzpatrick Saloon Building became a haberdashery. A bar was moved to the basement of the building and functioned as a speakeasy, and boss Tom Pendergast held “business” meetings on the top floor of the building.
NOW: The building is home to The Majestic, where you can order a barrel-aged Manhattan, eat a dry-aged KC strip and listen to live jazz — but without fear of cops raiding the joint.
Ninth Street from State Line to Genessee Street, West Bottoms
THEN: Once known as The Wettest Block in the World, twenty-five saloons and liquor retailers occupied all but two storefronts along this block-long stretch of the West Bottoms. The block also attracted brothels, casinos and retailers given its proximity to the Ninth Street cable car line and Union Depot, the city’s first major passenger rail hub. The saloons along the state line brought in drinkers from both Kansas and Missouri.
NOW: Grab a beer, cocktail and bite to eat at The Ship (1217 Union Ave.), a nearby bar and diner that opened in 1935 after the repeal of Prohibition. The bar is covered in treasures found in a West Bottoms warehouse basement.
1717 W. Ninth St., Street Level, West Bottoms
THEN: Jim and John Pendergast, older brothers to Tom, ran Pendergast Brothers Saloon. The saloon would later become the Antlers Club, known for raucous consumption of booze, gambling, loose women and jazz music. Jesse Price and Buster Smith, former members of Count Basie’s band, formed their own band (which included a young Charlie Parker) and played at the Antlers Club.
NOW: The name of chef Nick Goellner’s Antler Room (2506 Holmes St.) was inspired by the club.
1600 Genessee St., Stockyards District
THEN: A few months after Prohibition began, the stockyards surrounding the Kansas City Livestock Exchange Building were home to gambling dens and illicit businesses. Stockyards workers spent payday money on easy-to-access booze.
NOW: Enjoy now-legal craft cocktails at The Campground (1531 Genessee St.), booze and bites at Lucky Boys (1615 Genessee St.), craft beer at nostalgically decorated Stockyards Brewing (1600 Genessee St.) and locally made wine at Amigoni Urban Winery (1505 Genessee St.).
1400 Main St., Power & Light District
THEN: Mainstreet Cinema once had tunnels in the basement connected to the President Hotel on Baltimore Avenue. Famous actors used the tunnels as an entrance to the theater, and savvy bootleggers transported booze through the passageways.
NOW: The tunnels beneath Alamo Drafthouse Cinema have since been sealed off, but modern drinkers can enjoy beer and a film or savor cocktails in the Drum Room Lounge at the President Hotel.
406 E. 18th St., Crossroads District
THEN: A second-floor speakeasy dubbed Novelty Club featured a lavish bar from the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.
NOW: The quaint Border Brewing operates in the East Crossroads, serving craft beer made on site.
500 Walnut St., River Market
THEN: During Prohibition, citizens could legally buy booze for “medicinal” purposes with a physician’s prescription. The drugstore was required to have a government permit. However, many physicians sold prescriptions that people could take to a bootlegging druggist. D.M. Carey, a well-known bootlegger, sold booze at City Hall Drugs in the Gillis Theater and other citywide drugstores.
NOW: Opera House Coffee and Food Emporium has breakfast cocktails, such as the corpse reviver, paloma, Bloody Mary and coffee cocktails.
*Sources: Prohibition in Kansas City, Missouri: Highballs, Spooners & Crooked Dice by John Simonson, paris-of-the-plains.blogspot.com, squeezeboxcity.com and pendergastkc.org.