It wasn’t too many years ago that brew pubs were all the rage. There were a handful in Kansas City, places you could get a variety of interesting small batch beers brewed on site and pair them with a complete meal.
Well, those days are just about gone, replaced by a series of micro-breweries with tasting rooms that take a bare bones approach to the food.
It’s understandable. For one, it’s a lot more expensive, not to mention riskier, to operate a restaurant and a brewery. Also, one might be quite adept at turning out delicious beer but have zero experience or interest in the restaurant business. That’s why micro-breweries are popping up across the metro like morels in the spring while brew pubs have generally gone the way of the buffalo (I know it’s bison but that’s not the expression!).
Then I stumbled onto two locations that place an equal priority on their cuisine: Brewery Emperial and Tom’s Town Distilling Co. I visited both to find out why, and how, they decided to also focus on the kitchen.
“To me, when you go out, you want to eat as well as drink. When you go to a tasting room, it’s two beers and you’re out. We wanted to get people in here for the whole experience,” Brewery Emperial’s Keith Thompson said.
Thompson, whose card lists him as “Proprietor and Head Kegwasher," pointed to the open fireplace at the brewery, which serves as the focal point for the menu, and the room, for that matter.
“Most everything on the menu moves through that fireplace,” Thompson told me.
With Room 39’s Ted Habinger as one of the partners, I guess it’s no surprise that Brewery Emperial highlights its food along with its brews. The Wood Fired Half Chicken, served with tortillas, roasted jalapeno, a cilantro-onion-radish salad, lime, salsa and crema is a menu standout. The chicken is local, which is also a big emphasis.
“For example, the Short Rib Hot Dog comes from all-beef short ribs, which are bought locally, then braised and ground here. Even the fish comes from this region,” Thompson shared. “My mom is in her 70s, and she brings people in for lunch all of the time. I love the dynamics of little kids with elderly folks and everything in between. There’s no real age to this place."
Not five minutes away, you’ll find Tom’s Town Distilling. Known for its collection of excellent small-batch spirits and terrific cocktail bar, Tom’s Town is also serious about its food, though with a slightly different take.
“Spirits are always going to be the headliner here because we’re a distillery. The whole reason we have this place is so that people try our stuff. We want them to experience the brand in a physical setting,” Tom’s Town co-founder Steve Revare told me during a recent visit.
But Revare says executive chef Curtis Zahniser gives people a second reason to visit Tom’s Town through his creative and delicious dishes.
Zahniser’s small plates are targeted to pair with specific Tom’s Town cocktail creations.
For example, the shrimp ceviche with a spicy habanero-influenced salsa is a nice complement to the Rival Rabbit, Ransom Note, and Angry Goat cocktails while the crispy pork belly matches up with the Pinky Blitz and Shoot the Messenger. Crafting food that has an affinity for Tom’s Town booze is the most important part of Zahniser’s job.
“I spend a lot of time with the bartender. I try to stay tight with the cocktail,” said Zahniser, adding that people are generally surprised by his dishes.
I tried five items off the new menu and was completely blown away by the flavors, textures and the artistic nature. As it was lunchtime during a busy work day, I didn’t get a chance to experience the cocktail pairings.
But that just gives me a reason to return! Cheers!