Food Critics: The Best Alfresco Dining Spots In Kansas City | KCUR

Food Critics: The Best Alfresco Dining Spots In Kansas City

May 13, 2016

It's the perfect time for patio dining.
Credit Infrogmation of New Orleans / Wikimedia Commons

It’s the sweet spot of the year. The weather is generally perfect (not too hot; not too cold) and it's not too buggy or humid just yet.

It’s time to eat outside.

From restaurant patios to parks and summer festivals, we explore the world of alfresco dining. Our food critics search out the best spots in and around Kansas City — plus, their picks for the best KC food to bring on a picnic.

Here are their recommendations:

Jenny Vergara, Feast Magazine:

Urban picnic ideas:

  • Get your picnic from Cosentino’s Market Downtown and eat it at the Green Rooftop Park. The park is a beautiful, little-known green space on the roof of the building that houses Consentino’s. You’re surrounded by these giant skyscraper, reflective-glass buildings of Downtown and you really feel like you’re in this green oasis in the middle of the city. There's an art installation that’s a train boxcar with tall waving grasses; it’s hauntingly beautiful. For ease, get lunch from Cosentino’s deli, hot bar or salad bar, or swing by Kaiyo Sushi Bar inside the market. The grocery store also has a full dessert bar and gelato. It’s a marvelous experience.
  • Get your picnic from Bo Ling’s on the Plaza or The Mixx, and eat it at the Kauffman Memorial Garden. The park is a favorite secret garden near the Plaza, it features several nooks with stunning fountains, bronze sculptures from KC sculptor Tom Corbin, benches, a greenhouse and a rotating seasonal display of plants and flowers. For the food, lettuce wraps and Bo Ling’s house-made almond cookies are a great choice. Or the Chisaya Mama antioxidant salad from The Mixx, which features kale, arugula, quinoa, fennel, radish and Parmesan cheese with lemon-mint vinaigrette.
  • Get your picnic from Bun Mee Phan, and eat it at Waterworks Park. The park was carved in the bluffs next to Briarcliff, and it’s been a place for families to relax, picnic and play games and sports since the 1960s. Bun Mee Phan is a new Vietnamese bánh mì sandwich shop that recently opened, but it offers much more than soup and sandwiches. Owners Jimmy Phan and his girlfriend Kaylee consider their food Vietnamese “fusion,” because you basically choose your own culinary adventure. Pick a protein (grilled pork, beef, lemongrass chicken or tofu, as well as fried tilapia, caramelized pork belly or the traditional Vietnamese combo of cold cuts with steamed pork), then choose a delivery vehicle for that protein (French baguette, soft spring roll, warm corn tortilla or their new fry bread bun roll with a bowl).
  • Get your picnic from Sasha’s Baking Company and eat it at the rooftop terrace of the Central Library. The Downtown branch of the Kansas City Public Library is a fantastic place for an urban picnic; the rooftop terrace has a few tables and chairs and benches, and there’s a giant human-sized chess set. From Sasha’s, order the seasonal cold soba noodle salad or the quinoa salad to-go and treat yourself get a box of French macarons (or some other sweet) for dessert. The ham and cheese croissants never disappoint here, either.
  • Get your picnic from Los Tules, Sylvia’s Deli or Little Freshie and eat it at 18Broadway Urban Rain Garden. You may not immediately realize that this urban garden was the first of its kind in the country. It has five garden tiers and 100 raised beds, and produce from the garden supplies area food banks. Walk just up the hill and across Broadway to family-owned Los Tules Mexican Restaurant and get an order of their fantastic seafood ceviche with chips. Or go to Sylvia’s Deli and grab a sandwich or the lunch special from this little family run place; everything is good. Little Freshie also serves lunch sandwiches; my favorite is the tuna and white bean (tongol tuna, cannellini beans, lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, shallots, fresh herbs and greens) on a rustic potato bun, along with one if its wonderful house-made sodas.

Restaurant patios:

  • Blvd Tavern has a very long rectangle patio; two of the side walls are the neighboring brick buildings (the Blvd Tavern space used to house Shiraz). It’s literally an alleyway that’s been converted, but there’s something very charming about it. They’ve hung lights and there are beautiful tables and chairs. I always end up out on that patio — and want to be out on that patio — for brunch. They have a really delicious and eclectic brunch, with some comforting things that people would know about and then some ethnic dishes that branch out. In the early morning hours (the brunchy hours), there’s a nice breeze that just whips right through the patio, so it’s delightful in terms of temperature.
  • Thomas has an interesting roof. There’s an ivy lined path to the roof and a handful of tables with umbrellas. It’s a lovely place to watch the sunset (there’s a new apartment building across the street, so it’s not necessarily as beautiful to look at, and a lot of construction on 39th Street.). It’s a perfect place to land for a drink; just a quick drink maybe before you go to dinner or on your way to a show. It’s wonderful.

Stadium food:

The patio at Vivilore.
Credit Vivilore / Facebook

Jill Silva, The Kansas City Star:

Food Trucks:

  • I’m a huge fan of food trucks. The Star sponsors several Food Truck Friday events in the summer and fall. The next one is in our parking lot on June 3 from 5-8 p.m. There are a dozen trucks, a bar and picnic tables and grass by the fountain to relax and eat your meal or treat. After six years, we’ve definitely learned the sweet spot, weather-wise, is definitely early or late: we take a breather in July and August and pick up in the fall because frying on the asphalt is not fun. For other festival listings, check out Kansas City Food Truck Groupies.
  • If you want to combine food trucks and local wineries, head out to Somerset Ridge Vineyard & Winery in Paola, Kansas. In addition to sipping and eating outdoors in the beautiful vineyards, they have food trucks every Saturday and Sunday (such as El Tenedor, which serves Spanish tapas). While there, try Somerset’s new hard cider made with apples from neighboring Louisburg Cider Mill. During the week, the grounds are picnic friendly; on the weekends they would like you to patronize the chefs, who source locally.
  • The new Little Piggy, a chef-driven food truck hub, is a fun new detour that got a lot of love last week when Food Network host Alton Brown stopped by and ordered one of everything on the Red Wattle menu. This is urban eats; picnic tables are set up in an old used car lot. No vines, but there’s a liquor store next door.

Parks:

  • Shawnee Mission Park is a great space for picnics and parties. There are shady spots, spots near the water, etc. If you party is large, you can book a pavilion. Grad parties are popular this time of year, so book ahead if you want to reserve. The pavilions offer access to fire grates for barbecuing and lots of grass for horseshoes, Frisbee, croquet and more. No alcohol allowed.
  • Stop by Theater in the Park for an evening of Broadway-style musicals. You can bring your own food and drink, and there’s also a concession stand. No glass containers allowed.
  • Picnics are allowed during the Booms & Blooms Festival at Powell Gardens (July 2 this year). The Festival, which celebrates Independence Day, features live symphony music near the lake and fireworks. It’s one of the best celebrations I’ve ever attended.
  • The Sculpture Park at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is a great backdrop for any food you like. One of my most memorable picnics here was snacking on sushi.

Festivals:

  • Kansas City is blessed with so many ethnic festivals that it’s hard to single out just one, but if I had to, I’d pick the granddaddy of them all. The Ethnic Enrichment Festival is held every third weekend in August in Swope Park. You can buy mostly homemade food from booths that represent more than 50 countries, and there’s also amateur entertainment (dances, music, martial arts and fashion shows). It’s really a great place to find some mom-and-pop food that’s not represented by restaurants in our community, and it’s fun to go globally hopping booth to booth, trying all kinds of different things. It’s one of the most comprehensive festivals in the region and has been going on for more than 30 years, yet every year I find people who have never heard of the festival. (Full disclosure: for the past 20-ish years my family has run the Brazil booth for the non-profit Brazilian Club).

Farmers' markets:

  • The City Market is a fun place to grab a bite to eat. I especially enjoy the coconuts sold in a kiosk at Taste of Brazil (April through September only). Long lines form to get a sip of the refreshing coconuts, which are dramatically hacked open with a machete, or fresh sugar cane juice with the stalks fed through a juicing machine. You can get snacks and sandwiches inside the venue, which has outdoor seating, or any of the other restaurants around the perimeter, including Carollo’s Grill, Bloom Baking Co. and The Bite.
  • When I’m at the Overland Park Farmers' Market, I like to get breakfast (eggs, beans and rice) from the El Salvadoreno cart and each on a nearby bench while kids dance in the fountain, usually to the sounds of a local band.

Restaurant patios:

  • Michael Smith’s Extra Virgin is great for people-watching; there’s a lot going on at that intersection in the Crossroads. It’s mostly a tapas menu (Mediterranean fare), with special drinks from the bar. You can order a little or a lot; you can have a small group or a big group. They also have specials on different nights.
  • Le Fou Frog is just a really lovely hidden gem. They have little fountains and water features going, so there’s that little hum. It’s just far enough off the road in the river market area where you don’t hear a lot of the traffic, and you don’t see a lot of people walking. So, for me, it’s a really great space to just sit and talk to friends, drink wine, have a Kir Royale (Champagne or Cava with cassis liqueur; it’s just a bright, bubbly summer kind of thing to have).They have all kinds of happy hour specials, and their brandade (a fish dish that’s a very delicious kind of dip served with thick bread) is very, very nice.
  • I like La Bodega it quite a bit. It’s just got a real street feel to it, and you also sort of feel like you’re going to a different place. There are two locations. Out south, the restaurant is much larger and they can pull up garage doors. The Downtown location is smaller; it’s under Southwest Trafficway so it’s a little noisier but a lot of fun if you work downtown. They serve tapas, like olives, some hummus, some rice dishes … it has a Mediterranean feel and you can get little yummy things like that.
  • Justus Drugstore has a patio option, which is really nice for people who don’t want to commit to the full-blown menu or sit as long as dinner generally takes. I remember taking my kids up there a couple of years ago, and they still talk about how great it is, they really enjoy that patio area, which is open during the warm months. It’s just a little more relaxed. They often have brats and less fancy food than what’s served inside, but it’s still all locally sourced. And it kind of looks out onto a nice little main street. It’s a good getaway.
  • Hank Charcuterie is just one of my favorite places right now. It really does fantastic charcuterie (all those salami, terrines, rillettes and lovely meaty kind of appetizers). They have a daily happy hour. It’s a pretty small place in an old filling station, so there isn’t a lot of seating inside. But they do have seating in front that looks onto Massachusetts Street and seating on a covered patio the side. I’d highly recommend it.
  • This just in: Espirito do Sul opened their patio and has a special menu.
  • Rye has a nice space for outdoor dining.

Perfect picnic foods:

  • You can pick up food at any number of places in the city, from fried chicken to sushi. Fried chicken from Stroud’s or RC’s is a no-brainer. Skip the heavy sides and make a few light salads and a platter of deviled eggs for fun.
  • Choose sandwiches like a bánh mì or a French pan bagnat (a French-style tuna sandwich with vinaigrette). They’re better if allowed to marinate a bit before eating.

Stadium food:

  • Children's Mercy Park (for Sporting KC games) has a lot of nice food; it’s always changing. It’s where I get guilty pleasures for sure.

Charles Ferruzza, The Pitch:

  • Bun Mee Phan. OK, there’s not much of a view, to put it mildly (unless you find North Oak Trafficway to have any kind of visual allure), but there’s something so comforting and sweet about sitting on one of the two patio tables outside of this fabulous, pocket-sized Vietnamese restaurant. For one thing, the interior is claustrophobic, so sitting outside is really kind of luxurious. They serve spring rolls and bánh mì sandwiches and, if you’re into such things, fruity bubble teas.
  • I’ve always liked the fact that there are really interesting balconies on the Plaza. Brio Tuscan Grille has a great patio for watching people. And I’m not all that crazy about the food at Chuy’s Tex-Mex, but I do love that little narrow balcony. It looks down at Mill Creek Park and has a soothing view, particularly when the J.C. Nichols Fountain (one of the last relics surviving of the former Clarence McKay mansion in Long Island, the largest house ever designed by Stanford White) is spraying water on a hot summer day.
  • Café Des Amis has a lovely, romantic outdoor patio that is illuminated by sparkling small lights during the summer months. The food is delicious and the ambiance is very, very sexy. Some patios are really at their best in daylight or at dusk. This patio really comes to life at night. It’s pretty and fenced-in (the restaurant is up on a hill), and it feels like someone’s backyard (someone with good cooking skills). It definitely has a Parisian feel.
  • The patio at Aixois Bistro. Who would have thunk it, on Tuesday nights, Aixois, a beautiful French restaurant, serves fried chicken. And let me tell you, it’s delicious fried chicken.
  • Vivalore has a very attractive brick patio that is a joy for unwinding after a long and stressful day. It’s such a pretty, romantic patio. The cuisine is first-rate too; it’s sort of an eclectic menu. They have nice pastas and entrees.
  • The Classic Cup has sidewalk seating out front and a deck in the back. I prefer the sidewalk. The one reason I like Classic Cup so much is that you can watch people walk by. And invariably, you see someone you know or like, and invariably, you see someone you don’t want to see.

Stadium food:

Listener recommendations:

  • Eden Alley has a wonderful patio. It’s right there in the heart of the Plaza; it’s a gorgeous brick patio with wonderful flowers all around. They have delicious food, too; I love their vegan tacos, and they do a wonderful brunch on Saturday mornings.
  • The Westside Local has a secluded garden-like that’s partially covered and picnic table seating.
  • The Ethnic Enrichment Festival is the ultimate summer food fest! Bring your own tray...
  • Thomas has the best rooftop outdoor seating.
  • Best patios: Urban Table, Gram & Dun
  • Renee Kelly’s Harvest has a nice shaded patio.
  • Californos has to be one of the best decks in all the city. There’s live music and the menu is always great. There’s a nice little patio in the horseshoe drive area, and a huge deck out back. The deck backs up to Mill Street and there’s a back bar. During the summer months, it’s gorgeous with lights in the trees.
  • Have a picnic at Swope Park when Starlight Theatre has a concert that you love but couldn’t afford, or when tickets are sold out. There’s a picnic area right across the way (a gorgeous shelter house where they do the Ethnic Enrichment Festival), and you can still hear the music in that area. It’s a lot of fun.

Jen Chen is associate producer for KCUR's Central Standard. Reach out to her at jen@kcur.org.