As a kid, camping was one of my favorite summer activities.
Hot dogs burned black over the fire, sleeping on the ground, and finding out exactly how many foreign creatures can crawl into a tent seems novel when you’re a child. Fast forward to today and, while I still love the great outdoors, I prefer a nice firm mattress, a good steak on the grill, and the idea of sleeping outside — but not the reality.
For those who embrace nostalgia for camping but also enjoy the finer things, there’s a new spot in town — The Campground.
The Campround, located at 1531 Genessee St. in the West Bottoms, is the rare place where it’s hard to tell if it’s a cocktail bar with food or a restaurant with a great cocktail program. The concept grew out of a backyard bar shed in South Hyde Park run by owners Christopher Ciesiel and Cristin Llewellyn.
Four years ago, the couple raised more than $20,000 on Kickstarter to open the bar. After several setbacks and the abandonment of an original intentded location in midtown Kansas City, Ciesiel and Llewellyn transformed the former Genessee Royale Bistro into a restaurant and bar that serves lunch, brunch and dinner.
They painted the walls and booths matte black, lending a moody vibe to the room. The darkness is punctuated with natural elements. Sprigs of pine and greenery adorn room dividers and a stuffed raccoon snarls above the bar, which is stocked with vintage glassware decorated with pheasants and deer.
In the warmer months, glass garage doors will open to a large patio so that the natural elements can permeate the space as well.
Ciesiel drives the bar program, but Craig Howard of Howard’s Grocery, Cafe and Catering in the Crossroads Arts District is in charge of the food menu.
Howard’s “Midwest Harvest Cuisine” emphasizes local, seasonal ingredients used in unexpected ways. He says that the menu could change every couple of weeks, depending on what he’s buying from local farmers.
My first experience at The Campground was brunch, which is served on Saturdays and Sundays. The brunch menu features 11 entrees, plus sides. The standards are there —biscuits and gravy, pancakes, Eggs Benedict, French toast — with twists to make them memorable.
The French toast was one such item. Our server asked if we wanted it to come out after our other entrees because many people order it as a dessert. It’s easy to see why: this French toast is given The Campground treatment and made s’mores-style with marshmallow fluff and chocolate maple syrup. It was tasty but definitely on the sweet side of the spectrum.
For a savory contrast, I enjoyed the mushroom toast. A riff on the ever-so-popular avocado toast, the mushroom toast started with freshly toasted Farm to Market bread spread with fresh ricotta cheese. Sliced roasted mushrooms sat atop the cheese and the whole concoction was sprinkled with cured and shaved egg yolk and microgreens. It was hearty and filling, but not heavy.
Of course, one can’t have brunch without cocktails — especially at The Campground. There are two cocktail menus, one featuring lunch and brunch cocktails and one for dinner, but there’s a bit of overlap. I enjoyed the Ramos Gin Fizz, a traditional brunch cocktail from New Orleans. The double shaken drink took quite a while to make, but when it arrived, the frothy egg white head stood two inches above the rim of my pheasant-bedecked collins glass.
The lunch and dinner menu also share several items, including a farro salad and fried quail entree. The latter dish features a small bird, butterflied and fried with an impossibly crispy crust. Served with a quick pickled vegetable medley, butter lettuce leaves, and gribiche (a sort of egg salad accoutrement), it was a messy but delicious twist on fried chicken. Just be aware: quail are not large animals, so this dish is the perfect portion for one, but tough to share.
Another interesting item on both the lunch and dinner menus is the butternut squash salad. I dined in the midst of February, when every menu in town was awash in squash — but this was a refreshingly different presentation. Instead of baking or roasting, Howard spiralizes the squash and tosses it with walnut oil and preserved leeks.
The dressing was acidic and tart, a huge departure from the baking spices that normally accompany squash in winter. I loved the firm texture of the spiralized squash, but wished that the strands were cut into more manageable lengths.
For dessert, of course there’s a s’more. This one is the grown-up cousin of the campfire classic: dense and rich with fluffy toasted marshmallow on top. The graham cracker crust contrasts the incredibly moist brownie center. You can almost smell the smoke from the campfire.
If you’re in the mood for something a bit lighter, check out the lemon pound cake. The sweet, dense cake is offset by a dollop of whipped ricotta cheese and finished with a seasonal jam that rotates frequently.
Of course, food is optional: The Campground operates just fine as a cocktail bar. Try the customizable martini, which can be made with gin or vodka and comes with cocktail onions, green olives and citrus twists. A small bowl of salt and vinegar chips for nibbling is included with the cocktail.
The gimlet is The Campground’s charity cocktail, with a portion of the proceeds going to the Missouri Department of Conservation. Their twist on the classic uses Douglas fir-infused gin, lime juice and just enough balancing sugar. Its fragrance transports you to the forest.
The Campground is a beautiful blend of woodsy aesthetic and detailed execution. It’s the perfect place to escape the city while still being blocks away from downtown.