I could not describe my time in Kansas City without first highlighting the means by which I arrived: the Southwest Chief, a long distance route loved by the people of this country and a point of contention for a few executives at Amtrak. This train is a true adventure and in my opinion a quintessential American rail experience. As we wound our way through idyllic scenes in Illinois and Iowa, I watched as a vastly diverse populous boarded and disembarked. I was pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm of both passengers and staff on board.
The conductor gleefully announced picturesque river crossings. The cafe attendant was attentive to those riding for the first time and waved cheerfully to returning passengers. I sat in the observation car and discussed the contrasts of the German and American rail systems at length with Kurt, an engineer and train enthusiast who was on a mission to complete every American long distance route before the year’s end. As I showed him my blog, another passenger approached us. He expressed his appreciation for RPA’s role in saving the Chief and preventing the bus service initially pushed by contrarians.
I am so very glad to have taken this route and seen first hand the positive impact that rail advocacy, coalition building, and congressional support can provide to communities that truly want their services maintained and improved. I had to laugh when I came across my namesake at Fort Madison. Passing over the bridge into this fresh air stop, I watched as the sun set over farm communities and riverfront RV stops. Sometimes it is easy to get swept up in the demands of urbanized rail and this was a welcome departure from high density.
As nightfell and the half bottle of wine was emptied, I said my goodbyes to my fellow passengers and headed to my hotel in Kansas City. I had never heard of The Raphael Hotel but my team kept telling me I was in for a treat. I had my first day off in some time, so I decided to take advantage of the amenities and relax. The Raphael is indeed a historic property and a real gem. The bathtub was deep enough for a long luxurious soak, they have live jazz almost every night, and the staff takes care of one another. It was clearly a collaborative and supportive environment.
I took a stroll down the walking path and ended up a few blocks from the plaza. To my surprise, I found Prime Sushi KC offering a really nice lunch sashimi bento. Sushi is not the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Kansas City but I was looking for a healthy lunch on my rest day and the crowded bar indicated I had arrived at the right spot. I sat at the bar and struck up a conversation with the guy next to me. He was wearing a transit t shirt and chef pants, so I figured we would have a common interest. He told me about his work as a catering chef and that I had to ride the streetcar. I was already planning to but his advice to hop on mid day and avoid the commuters was a nice tip.
The next morning I awoke to a complementary breakfast Benedict and steeled my nerves before heading to KCUR for my first radio interview. I was unsure of what to expect. As I downed my coffee and mentally prepared for being on air, I talked with the studio intern. As I described my internship to her she told me about growing up in a remote part of Kansas with no access to train or plane without driving to a station or airport. She gleefully subscribed to the @railpassengers instagram and wished me good luck as I donned my headphones and leaned into the mic.
After we wrapped, I made my way back to The Raphael Hotel to meet with Chef Shaun of The Chaz. He’s a fantastic chef having travelled and worked all over the globe. His menu may fluctuate but the caliber of execution does not. This is a wonderful dining experience enjoyed by locals and travelers alike.
We opened with Lobster Bisque and a light Prosecco. Classically prepared, not too heavy but with rich flavor, it was a nice first round. The presentation of Chef Shaun’s dishes is not to be overlooked. He gives a nice clean dish with good colors and nothing overly elaborate. The experience was practical for service staff with a perception of value any guest would appreciate.
The second course is an item that is not always on the menu, the chicken and the egg, a playful take on a scotch egg, this is a Truffle Deviled Egg, wrapped in Chicken and Black Pepper Sausage served with a Tomato Coulis and Black Garlic Aioli. Often seen on their catering menu for special events, it is a fun and imaginative take on a classic. The crunch on first bite is incredibly satisfying as this upscale take on a traditional bar food explodes with flavor.
As Shaun came by to check on me, I was struggling to choose an entree – everything sounded delicious. He described a few items but lingered and romanced his description of the Chicken Cordon Bleu. He told me about how it was a classic from his childhood as it is for so many of us. Chef’s version is roasted chicken breast stuffed with Pitt Ham, Swiss and chive, mornay on top gingerly placed on a decadent black truffle risotto paired with asparagus. I absolutely loved this and would recommend to anyone looking for comfort food.
All in all, I was very impressed not only by Chef Shaun, but the whole staff. Everyone was communicative empathetic and compassionate to one another. The seating and bar are lovely and The Chaz is easily staged for groups of any size. This is a great destination for a big life event, congratulatory moment, or even just a little TLC. After a day of lovely experiences, I called it an early night and tucked into bed.
My last day in KCMO was open and I was committed to adventure. Much like the HOP in Milwaukee, Kansas City has a free streetcar traversing 2 miles in the heart of downtown. I boarded at Union Station and rode to the River Market where I checked out a number of lovely shops and grabbed a latte at City Market Coffee. Established in 1996, this small batch roaster is a multi-level cafe in a historic brick building. I talked with the baristas and got recommendations for where to shop and eat. From the spice store to the South Indian Imports store, it was a really nice way to spend a morning.
One thing I will note that seems to be a learning curve for many families new to the streetcar is the need to understand safe riding practices. As I witnessed a girl no older than 6 swinging from the handles above the folded seats in the accessible seating section, her mother said nothing to her in regards to this dangerous behavior. I’m all for having fun on the rail, but hanging and swinging from the handles is not cute. It’s dangerous not only for the child but for everyone around her. If the streetcar made an abrupt stop, if she lost her grip and fell, who might be injured? I’ve travelled on the Austin Light Rail with multiple children in my extended family and we follow basic rules; sit in your seat, hands to yourself, respect your fellow passengers. I love seeing families utilizing public transportation and I encourage my family to use the services in our community as often as possible. That being said we all have a civic responsibility to keep our systems safe, clean, and respectful for all riders.
After checking out at the Raphael and thanking the gracious staff for accommodating me, I was in pursuit of Barbecue – specifically the infamous Kansas City Burnt Ends. On boisterous recommendation from a friend, I headed to LC’s Bar-B-Que on the Southeast side of town. As I opened the doors, the smell of smoked meat, the sound of fries hitting the deep fryer, a hearty welcome from the team behind the counter was an intoxicating and lingering sensation. I ordered the Burnt Ends half and half with sauce. The pork was served in rough cut hearty chunks with a thick smoked bark and the beef was pull apart tender and smoked to perfection. This was paired with a giant handful of fried okra and the obligatory white bread, onions, and pickles. The experience was so divine, I hopped on livestream to share this experience with the followers of our Instagram account. I ate a shameful amount of food for one person and waddled my way out into the bright light of midday to walk off the feast.
My train was running a little behind so I walked around the plaza and checked out the retail scene of KC. I’m not big on shopping, but having blown out my favorite sandals, I was in need of immediate replacement shoes and the vans store was having a sale. After donning a new pair of affordable kicks, I still had a little time to kill so I popped into a bistro to grab a beer and wifi.
Lo and behold as I sat down, and older man approached the bar and asked the bartender if he would turn on summer smackdown. As I turned to see who the wrestling fan was, my jaw dropped. It was Ric Flair, world famous WWE champion. I dropped my voice and quietly told him I loved his stage presence and I would join him and his wife in cheering on his daughter who was making an appearance on TV that evening. I had briefly worked for his friend Mick Foley a few years back during his speaking tour and had learned to appreciate wrestling since. This was such a surprise to me and once again KC showed me that I should never know what to expect from this town.
After we snapped a photo and said our goodbyes, I headed over to Union Station as the sunset. Kansas City Union Station is absolutely beautiful. Well maintained with gorgeous architecture and immaculate tile work, Seeing it lit up at night while waiting for the last train was like being transported to another reality. As I boarded the Southwest Chief once again, I watched this bastion of rail culture fade into the darkness and rest my head before my next adventure.