If Woody Allen made a movie in Kansas City, I feel certain he would shoot a scene inside the soon-to-be-late, great Golden Ox bar.
That’s because there’s no place more Kansas City in Kansas City. With its gloriously kitschy branding iron-motif carpeting, massive oak club chairs, leather saddles on display, Western murals and historic photos of the downtown stockyards, the whole restaurant is a time capsule from a bygone era when cattle barons carved up 24-ounce T-bones.
But the bar, with its stained-glass ceiling and gleaming wood top that curves like a guitar, is what I’ll miss most. It was dim and Old School with capital letters. You didn’t go there looking for house-made habanero-and-kumquat-infused vodka. You went there for scotch on the rocks, a martini (gin, of course) or anything else your grandfather would have ordered in 1949 when the bar opened.
(The Ox closes Dec. 20; if you’ve never been, you really owe it to yourself to go and raise a big-girl whiskey to the history its walls have seen.)
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I love the new hyper-inventive craft cocktails as much as anyone, but mixology is only one component of bar excellence. At least 60 percent of it, in my book, is what I called the Woody factor — a quirky, otherworldly charm that makes you feel like you’ve stepped inside a movie. Here are some other area bars that have it in spades:
American Restaurant bar: The American is an iconic Kansas City location with its two-story glass walls and ultrafab Warren Platner midcentury modern bentwood ceiling sculptures. On December evenings, the bird’s eye view of the Mayor’s Christmas Tree and skaters on the Crown Center Ice Terrace is one you won’t find anywhere else.
O’Malley’s Pub in Weston: There is no place in the Kansas City area that reminds me of Germany — where I lived for 10 years after college — like O’Malley’s enormous underground vaulted stone cellar. Maybe that’s because it was built by Germans who opened a brewery there in 1842. The craft beers are excellent, and the Row Hard alcoholic root beer will warm your belly on cold winter nights. Go Fridays through Sundays for live Irish music.
Wunderbar: The flat-out beautiful dark-wood interior of this art-nouveau-feel bar in the Freight House would be enough to keep me coming back. When you throw in top-shelf bar food coming out of Grünauer’s kitchen and sublime cocktails, I’m surprised I can ever find a seat at the handsome bar.
Manifesto: The pre-opening buzz for this 21st-century “speakeasy” contained a high potential for preciousness. I am not inclined to play the coy, text-for-entry game, so I just showed up at the back door on a weeknight and buzzed the intercom. When a voice answered “Yes?” I said, “We’re thirsty. Can we come in?” The lock clicked open, we walked down narrow stairs through a red hallway and into the darkest room I’ve ever had a cocktail in, lit mainly by flickering candles. The bartenders often wear period-look clothing: wide-armed white shirts, buttoned vests and newsboy caps. Off-the-charts Woody factor. The cocktails are pricey, potent and sophisticated. My favorite is the Ward and Precinct, a bittersweet bourbon elixir.
Le Fou Frog: Just east of City Market, this former gas station serves up off-the-charts ambience, with red lights, vintage posters and the charming accents of the French owner, Mano, and waiter, Jean-Pierre, both of whom are straight from Central Casting. The Fou is no place to go for a quiet tête-à-tête. It’s always loud, usually crowded, and when I’m there, there’s no place I’d rather be.