Kansas City through the eyes of Ann Willoughby, Willoughby Design Group

I first came to Kansas City from Mississippi in the fall of 1968 when my husband accepted an internship at the University of Missouri Kansas City. I was 21 years old and it was the most beautiful fall I had ever seen. In December I saw my first snow. Instead of flat plains, there were river bluffs, beautiful tree-lined boulevards, stately homes and fountains—lots of fountains.

The Design Community
Kansas City had, and still has, one of the highest percentages of visual artists per capita in the country because of the Kansas City Art Institute and Hallmark Cards. Combine a lively art scene with blues and jazz and the best barbecue—and that was my first impression.

Over the years, as I have traveled around the world, Kanas City has taken on a deeper meaning. It is a rich cultural experience for designers. Don’t miss the world-renowned County Club Plaza shopping district (built in the 1920s to true Spanish architecture) and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, but look a little deeper and you’ll find a Kansas City teaming with energetic artists, designers, chefs and musicians. I find we have a creative culture here that is lively as any place for a city of our size. Sure, you need to know where to look. Architecture, art, fashion, music and food all are alive and flourishing in downtown and the Crossroads.

The greater Kansas City area includes both Kansas City, KS, and Kansas City, MO, plus a network of suburbs on both sides of the state line—though I know most and love KCMO. With excellent city planning throughout the metro area, we have wonderful little hubs and downtowns every few miles. It was tough to narrow down a few key areas to recommend (truly, there’s a lot to love about this city), but here are our Willoughby faves.

Where to Stay
Where to Eat
Best Bars/Late-Night Venues
Best Tourist Activities
Designer-Friendly Shops
Unique to KC
How to Get Around

Where to Stay
Looking for the best hotel? Stay at The President (the Crossroads). Restored by the Hilton to, well, much of its original 1930s grandeur, The President is worth at least a peak into the period lobby and corner bar, The Drum Room (which played host to no less than Frank Sinatra back in the day). The hotel is in walking distance to the Power & Light District, Sprint Arena and the Crossroads Arts District.

Where to Eat?
Justus Drugstore ($$$) (North of the metro): It’s a 30-minute drive north of KC, but so worth the miles. Chef Jonathan Justus serves only locally grown foods in the most delightful combinations imaginable. The restaurant is located in an old drugstore that has been in the Justus family since the 1950s.

Bluestem ($$$) (Midtown/Westport): Down the street from our Westport office, this is where we wine and dine (when our pocketbooks are feeling full), enjoying the Culinary artistry by an inspired chef.  The bar is a well-kept secret with lighter menu choices and a crisp, welcoming ambiance that feels like your own corner of the world.


Succotash ($) (River Market): Best hipster breakfast in town… maybe even minus the hipster. Located directly on the City Market, it’s the perfect break from produce browsing, featuring a mish-mash of ’50s furniture and quirky art with a slight layer of homestyle grease. Watch for crazy pancake flavor combinations and a dish called the Kitchen Sink—a tasty pile-up of it all.

SPIN! Neapolitan Pizza ($) (Four locations throughout city): For full disclosure, SPIN! is a client of ours. We partnered with Hammerpress (see below) to create the identity—the letterpress stylings are just as layered and made-perfect-through-imperfection as the pizzas. Especially good for the price, including BYOVino specials Monday through Thursday, with small corking fees when you bring your own wine.

(No, we haven’t forgotten the barbecue—keep reading!)

Best Bars/Late-Night Venues
JP’s Wine Bar: ?In the Crossroads, a stone’s throw from the Power & Light District, JP’s elegant yet relaxed atmosphere is an ideal spot to gather any time of day (from 7 a.m. coffee and pastries to 11 p.m. wine and cheese flights). Especially wonderful on the patio in nice weather.

Jardine’s (Midtown/Plaza): Kansas City jazz may not be in its prime these days, but Jardine’s keeps our top players on stage every night of the week. Ida McBeth on Saturdays is the favorite; see website for schedules. (The wedding cake martini goes down a little too easily.)

Harry’s Country Club (River Market): In the River Market, Harry’s has successfully combined Hank Williams honky with 21st century urban hip—“honky-hip.” This place is especially good with a group of friends.

First Fridays in the Crossroads (18th & Baltimore et al): Just follow the crowds! From Happy Hour into the late night, galleries, shops and eateries will find you before you can find them. 

Best Tourist Activities
Take the KC Barbecue Tour
Arthur Bryant’s—Fall-off-the-bone smoked meats with a biting, tangy, celery-salt-based sauce. THE iconic Kansas City barbecue.

Gates—“May-Ah-Hep-You?” Know what you want when you step up to order… or you might get yelled at or passed by. “Ham on bread on bun.”

-LC’s—Where local foodies go for barbecue. (Not for ambiance)

Jack Stack—Classic barbecue from the Fiorellas, KC’s barbecue family, in the ever-classy Freight House. The burnt ends will knock your socks off.

Oklahoma Joe’s—Located in a gas station! Energetic weekday lunch crowds.

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art: The Nelson’s newest addition, the Bloch Building, is as much a work of art as anything inside it. Designed by Steven Holl, the angular yet graceful modern building sits on one side of the museum’s lawn (out of the way of the iconic shuttercocks) and illuminates after dark with a show-stopping white translucence.

The Country Club Plaza Holiday Lights (Thanksgiving through mid-January): Colored lights sculpted around the Plaza’s Spanish architectural shapes is a new treat every year. KC’s “more boulevards than Paris, more fountains than Rome” seem to all converge here.
At the Plaza: Anthropologie, BCBG Max Azria, Betsey Johnson, Burberry, Mark Shale, Urban Outfitters, Tiffany & Co., Tivol (local jeweler), American Apparel, Bare Escentuals, The North Face, Brooks Brothers Men/Boys/Women, Three Dog Bakery, Paper Source, lillibelle (local kids clothier) and more.

Designer-Friendly Shops
Crossroads Area
Hammerpress: Isn’t this why you came to KC in the first place? Americana at its finest. Hand-letterpressed indie concert posters, cards, postcards, stationery and more, plus fresh flowers!

Christopher Elbow: Expertly graphical and tasty handmade designer chocolates.

Straw Sticks & Bricks:
More for refashioning your house than browsing, featuring some of the best sustainable flooring and finishing materials for order.

Birdies: The finest in unique women’s undies.

Spool: Clothing for men, women and kids in a shop smaller than the family bathroom. Some new, some vintage, some handmade locally.

Black Bamboo: Sleek, modern, opinionated—it’s hard not to covet the aesthetic here. http://www.black-bamboo.com/?

A&O Architectural Salvage: Rows of salvaged doors, desks, sinks, chandeliers … with a goal in mind, it’s worth the search.

Retro Inferno:
Mid-century modern heaven! Furniture, decor and accessories for your groovy pad.

Bon Bon Atelier: Crafty and designy decor, books, accessories and shoes, plus clothes and jewelry handmade by the darling owners.

Asiatica: Elegant clothing and accessories for more refined tastes.

45th & State Line antique shops (most open Saturdays only)—Everything from wonderful salvage to mint-condition furniture.?

Urban Mining (open only the first Fri/Sat/Sun of each month): The second-best antique mall in the city with a selection that changes monthly.

KCAI student sales:
If you can catch them at the right times, a fabulous source for building an inexpensive yet beautiful art collection.

River Market
River Market Antique Mall: The best antique mall in the city hands down, with a wonderful Mid-century selection.

City Market (Sat/Sun): KC’s premiere farmers’ market, surrounded by shops, vendors and a cool old sunken-steamboat museum with a fantastic 19th century collection, Steamboat Arabia.

(open Thu/Fri/Sat/Sun): A charming selection of old and refurbished furniture and decor.

West Bottoms

ReRuns (open Saturdays 10-4 only): Stocking several shops in town, a vintage clothing and accessories warehouse with killer pricing.?

Foundation Room:
Rooms and floors worth of architectural salvage throughout the week, but on most weekends, its lofted event space plays host to fashion shows, art exhibits, theatre and somewhat frequent local designer shopping parties.

Overland Park/Leawood, KS

Johnson County Community College Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art: A renowned arts program and impressive modern collection in the heart of JoCo.

Feng: Another client of ours, Feng marries East and West with a must-see collection of Asian-designed or Asian-inspired runway fashion, unique decor, authentic Chinese antiques and a tea market.

Standard Style: The local fashion boutique times five—lots of labels, lots of space and lots of money to be spent.

Habitat Shoes: The newest styles from the upscale on-trend brands in an urban yet comfortable atmosphere.

Park Place’s Barkley Square:
A lawn in summer and outdoor ice rink in winter, this new park is surrounded by eateries, shops and art galleries (and a fountain that sometimes shoots fire). Grab a gelato and a seat and spend a few hours, especially with the kids. (Also a client!)

Also in the area: Crate & Barrell, West Elm and Dean & Deluca.

Unique to KC

Boulevard Brewing Company:? Our local beer wonder is the largest specialty brewer in the Midwest and a favorite everywhere it goes. Brewed from a vintage Bavarian brewhouse, the brewery is also open for tours (but book early).

How to Get Around
While most consider Kansas City a driving city, as a city and as a firm we have been working to improve our public transportation—it can get you around town, but unfortunately, it’s not yet as ubiquitous and accessible as in most larger cities.

Our rapid transit line, the MAX (which we designed), serves the River Market, downtown, the Crossroads, Midtown and the Plaza—right through most of our favorite spots.)