The first thing you need to do is let go of preconceived notions. Yes, you will walk up to Arthur Bryant’s on the corner of 18th and Brooklyn, and you will be disappointed. You will see a red brick building that looks something like an abandoned sewing machine factory from the 1930s. You will enter through a beat up screen door that will slam behind you. You will say to yourself, “This can’t be the place.”
It’s the place.
I have a theory that you can tell the story of Kansas City through its barbecue restaurants. Kansas City, for example, will sneak up on you — a bit like Oklahoma Joe’s BBQ. They don’t call it Oklahoma Joe’s anymore, it’s KC Joe’s or some such nonsense, but for me it will always be Oklahoma Joe’s, and though there are now several locations the only one that will ever matter to me is the one inside the gas station.
You would tell people, “Hey, there’s an amazing barbecue place inside a gas station,” and they wouldn’t quite get what you were saying. That is to say, they didn’t fully appreciate that it was REALLY INSIDE A GAS STATION (where the soda fountain, day old pastries and cooler with Gatorade would be) and they didn’t fully appreciate HOW GOOD THE BARBECUE was. There was no way to explain it. You had to see it and live it.
Another example: Kansas City is friendly but it is friendliness with an edge. That is to say: Kansas City is Gates Bar-B-Q* friendly. When you walk into Gates, someone will instantly say to you, “Hi, may I help you?” See? Friendly. The emphasis is on the “Hi” and the intention is to help you get the most delicious ribs or turkey or beef sandwich.
* Bar-B-Q is the only acceptable spelling for Gates.
However, if you are not quite ready to order or are not paying attention, the tone changes. You will get a second, somewhat less enthusiastic, “Hi, may I HELP you,” with the emphasis now on “help.” People in Kansas City are friendly, sure, but they don’t have all day.
A quick Gates-Bryant’s story: In Kansas City, the Arthur Bryant’s or Gates question is the essential one, this city’s version of Mary Ann or Ginger. Your answer defines you, not in a bad way necessarily but in a real way. You are a Bryant’s person or you are a Gates person — you may like both but you can be only one.
Ten years ago, the Negro Leagues legend Buck O’Neil asked me if I was a Bryant’s or Gates person. Buck meant the world to me, of course, and I wanted only impress him with my soul.
“Bryant’s,” I said. He looked at me with disdain.
“Well, what do you know?” he said. “You’re a white boy.”
This Kansas City-is-barbecue theory can go on for a very long time, getting more and more obscure, so let’s get back inside the Bryant’s, after you’ve heard that screen door slam behind you. First thing you will see are the pictures on the wall. They are of presidents and celebrities and sports stars who have eaten at Bryant’s. Everybody eats at Bryant’s. There are some places that put up such photographs in ostentatious ways to let you know that you ARE somewhere. At Bryant’s, it looks like someone put these photos up the night after finding them in the attic: “Hey, Charlie, I found this photo of Harrison Ford under an old electric fan. Shouldn’t you put that on the wall somewhere? And we’ve got like 10 of President Obama, you want to keep these? Where do you want the Sarah Palin ones?”
The only photo that really matters, though, is not a photo at all but an editorial cartoon that ran in the Kansas City Star on the day after Arthur Bryant died. He was 80 years old, and he died in his restaurant, and the cartoon is of Bryant at the pearly gates. St. Peter says to him, “Did you bring sauce?”
Move through the line quickly. You could get distracted by the photographs or the incredible aroma or the fact that the people working behind the counter might or might not be wearing gloves. The last part should concern you the least. Calvin Trillin, the doyen of Kansas City barbecue, once wrote a letter in response to an actual negative mention of Bryant’s in the New York Times Magazine. He wrote that when this distinguished couple walked in, the counterman had thought tongs were appropriate. “What nobody told them,” Trillin wrote, “was that 40 percent of the taste was in the counterman’s hands.”
Distracted or not, you have to move through the line quickly — the line often stretches well into the street — and you must, by local custom, talk sports with the people around you. The topic of the day is, of course, the Royals but at other times of year it is also acceptable to:
1. Complain about Chiefs coaching (year-round).
2. Talk about how terrible Kansas football is (September/October only).
3. Argue whether Kansas basketball has enough to win it all (October to March).
4. Ask when Kansas State coach Bill Snyder will finally hang them up (year-round)
5. Grumble/rejoice about Missouri being in the SEC (year-round)
6. Complain about Chiefs coaching (year-round)
If you do this properly, the line will move quickly, and then you will soon get to the counter, where you will see a tray of silverware and, more importantly, a pile of plates. These plates are a trap. For some items, you need to take one of these plates and had it to the counterman. For others, however, you DO NOT take a plate. And here’s the thing: No customer has ever broken the plate code. Every single day, hundreds of people order a sandwich only to have the counterman yell at them, “I need a plate!” And hundreds more will hand a plate to a counterman only to have him roll his eyes and say, “No plate!” like you just might be the dumbest person on earth.
I obviously don’t know the whole code, so if you’re ordering turkey or beef or ribs, sorry, you’re on your own. But I can tell you, if you are order burnt ends, as you should, the answer is: No plate. You just look through that little window and say, “Burnt ends and fries,” and if you say it confidently enough the guy will nod and, like magic, hand you a plate with burnt ends and fries that weighs roughly 238 pounds.
It occurs to me that you might not know what burnt ends are. Again we must turn to Trillin; he said many years ago, at Bryant’s, they would cut off the burnt ends of brisket and give them away to people for free. What they found, though, was that people loved them so much — Trillin himself calls them the most delicious foodstuff on earth — that they started selling them.*
* Here, once again, is where Bryant’s and Gates fight. While burnt ends are the most popular meal at Bryant’s, they won’t even serve them at Gates. “We don’t burn our food,” Ollie Gates himself will tell you.**
** I’m told there are now Gates restaurants that DO serve some kind of burnt ends sandwich. Seems sacrilegious, but Ollie must know what he’s doing.
You can get burnt ends all over town now. Heck there is now a restaurant CALLED Burnt Ends. But the actual burnt ends are no longer just the ends of the brisket that catch too much fire. The demand is too high. Still, they are delicious, and once you have the plate in your hands, you will want to quickly make your way to the end of the counter, where you can order an enormous red cream soda if you like and you can fish out pickle chips from the absurdly large jug that sits at the end of the counter.
Then you find a table somewhere among the celebrity photographs and eat the best food in the world.
Now, I should warn you: There are people I know, friends even, who do not like Arthur Bryant’s. They don’t see the charm. They prefer a proper barbecue place like Jack Stack, where the atmosphere is nice and the sides are heavenly and the barbecue is fine and the service is excellent. I’m good with that. The cheesy corn at Jack Stack is fantastic, and I could send you to Rosedale or Q39 or Danny Edwards or LC’s or BB’s or any number of other superb places. The reviews I’m getting for Char Bar are off the charts. Well, as Buck O’Neil used to say, there’s plenty of room in the world for all kinds. And, more importantly, that will just make the line at Arthur Bryant’s shorter for me.