BBQ Isn’t Everything in Kansas City

If you like classical music, ballet or opera, you might want to start making plans right now to travel to Kansas City, Mo., in the autumn of 2011.

That's when Kansas City is scheduled to inaugurate its dramatic and curvaceous new Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Designed by acclaimed Israeli architect Moshe Safdie, the center should instantly catapult the city into the front ranks of performing-arts facilities around the country, while adding momentum to efforts to revitalize its urban core.

Kansas City has spread a long way from that core. The original urban entity was incorporated on the east bank of the Missouri River in 1850, just 20 years before the founding of Kansas City's first Jewish Reform temple, Congregation B'nai Jehudah www. .

As Kansas City's center of gravity shifted toward the Southwest, Congregation B'nai Jehudah migrated along the same axis. Today, the 140-year-old congregation has actually moved across the state line into Overland Park, Kan., a pleasant bedroom community that also hosts the headquarters of many prominent corporations, including the Spring Nextel Corporation.

But unless you celebrated B'nai Jehudah's 140th birthday recently or were visiting the posh Oak Park Mall, you probably wouldn't have any reason to venture to Overland Park. Not when you could do your shopping amid the gorgeous Spanish-inspired architecture of Kansas City's Country Club Plaza.

Built back in 1922, the Country Club Plaza offers more than a dozen blocks worth of European-style fountains, statuary and landscaping, all laid out against the burbling waters of Brush Creek.

A company called Ambiance on the Water even offers gondola rides on the creek, which seems like a charmingly romantic way to enliven an evening on the plaza. In September, Country Club Plaza hosts a popular annual art fair; strings of lights add to the ambience by outlining the buildings from Thanksgiving until early January.

Right next to the plaza, you can stay in style at the Raphael Hotel , a chic, 1920s-era apartment building that was converted into a boutique hotel back in 1975.

Speaking of night life, the hotel's own Chaz restaurant has a growing reputation as one of the top eateries in Kansas City. We didn't have a chance to try dinner there, but we did sneak down one night to hear some of the fine live jazz that's offered weekends.

And speaking of music, Kansas City certainly has a reputation as one of the nation's jazz capitals.

From the 1920s to the 1940s, the city hosted hundreds of jazz clubs, with the intersection around 18th and Vine known as the "Paris of the Plains" for the excitement and glamour of its round-the-clock jam sessions featuring great performers like John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Big Joe Turner and Mary Lou Williams.

Explore the exciting history of that era at the American Jazz Museum, then experience the aural pleasures of jazz firsthand with a concert at the adjoining Blue Room club.

But don't let your ears have all the fun; Kansas City has plenty of visual treats too. The city is home to the fabulous — and free! — Nelson Atkins Museum of Art. The whimsical giant badminton shuttlecocks on the museum's lawn are entertaining, but you'll find the museum's true treasures inside the historic 1933 building and its new Bloch Building expansion.

An enthusiastic crowd filled the building while we were in town to celebrate the opening of the museum's new Egyptian exhibition, but the new American Indian galleries (opened last year), and the extensive Chinese and Japanese collections also deserve plenty of attention.

In addition, the Nelson-Atkins has a particularly good American art collection, including a number of wonderful paintings by Thomas Hart Benton, who taught at the Kansas City Art Institute and lived in the city for a number of years.

If you're a fan of Benton's work or if you'd like to discover a great American artist, take an hour or so to tour Benton's home and studio, now a state historic site

Some of Kansas City's greatest attractions are actually located outside the city proper. History buffs will want to visit Independence, Mo., to experience the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum www.truman

Truman grew up in Independence, and he returned to the town after his terms as president to live out his retirement years there and build his library. You can also visit the home where Truman lived, which just reopened following the completion of a conservation and reconstruction project.

If your tastes run more toward plants than politics, head 30 miles out of Kansas City to the Powell Gardens in Kingsville. The 915-acre gardens features beautiful modern architecture designed by Fay Jones (an apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright).

As far as the local cuisine goes, Kansas City is known far and wide for its barbecue. In the interests of comprehensive research, I conducted a belly-busting amount of barbecue-tasting.

If you observe kashrut, sampling Kansas City's famed barbecue might be a bit more challenging, although the founder of Arthur Bryant's BBQ supposedly said that he wanted his sauce to be so tasty that people could — and would — be able to eat it on bread alone.

If you don't fancy making a meal out of sauce and bread, then you can order the grilled salmon on Jack Stack's menu.

Finally, set aside an hour or two to visit the Hallmark Visitors Center for a fascinating free look at the history and products of one of the most iconic and successful corporations in America. 



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