The best coffee shops in KC right now, according to a coffee critic
I have been coming to Kansas City once a year or so for the past decade in my capacity as an editor and co-founder for the website Sprudge, the world’s most popular coffee publication. My visits are always for coffee—coffee events, coffee parties, even national coffee competitions. I’m always searching for the best coffee shops in any city I visit, and KC is no exception.
In that time, I’ve come to see KC as a microcosm for coffee’s growth and cultural advancement. The global coffee industry has grown enormously in the last ten years, both in terms of per capita consumption and industry earnings. You aren’t just imagining it—it feels like new cafes are everywhere, uniquely positioned to serve an increasingly broad, multi-generational, multi-ethnic customer base. Growth forecasts predict this is no flash in the pan. Driven by the astounding popularity of ready-to-drink coffee options such as cold brew, experts see five-percent growth industry-wide continuing for the next decade. The trend isn’t going anywhere.
There has always been coffee in Kansas City. Folgers roasted downtown at Seventh Street and Broadway for more than a century before closing in 2012. (Today, it’s fancy apartments. Big surprise.) But as Kansas City goes in 2020, so does the world, and that means a whole range of new—or at least relatively new, compared to Folgers—coffee brands and entrepreneurs writing the city’s coffee story fresh, with a focus on flavor, cup quality and social experience driving the city’s diverse base of coffee bars.
When I first visited Kansas City, Broadway Cafe and Roasting Company was already an established, iconic brand while Oddly Correct was a young upstart, focused on the then-new pour over approach more commonly found in cities like San Francisco or New York. Many more of the city’s best coffee companies did not yet exist. Few conurbations have seen their city scene grow more, or better, over the past decade than Kansas City, where it feels like there is an incredible daily energy driving the coffee culture. Take me at my word when I say it: I live in Portland, Oregon, and I like your scene better.
In KC’s coffee scene, you get the best of both worlds: Homey neighborhood spaces offering traditional coffeehouse vibes without sacrificing quality sit down the street from avant garde, progressive espresso bars pushing the city forward and offering wild expressions of coffee’s culinary possibilities. It is perhaps a metaphor for the city itself—big and small, new and old, hip and classic in the same breath, the same block. It makes Kansas City a joy to visit for coffee, with residents who are truly spoiled for quality options and different expressions of what coffee can be for urban life. Your city’s food and bar culture is rightly recognized around the world, and your coffee is no different. I’m already plotting my next trip back.
I spent four days visiting more than a dozen shops around town. Here are the five best right now.
For such a young company—founded in the summer of 2017—Monarch Coffee has come to define what coffee means to modern Kansas City. But it wasn’t always this way. Various publications have described it as Parisian, coastal, “like stepping into a Pinterest board.” This combination of descriptors come off first like a compliment but land more like a swipe when you think about the subtext. For a cafe this beautiful, this professional, to be in Kansas City must naturally evoke thoughts of elsewhere. It’s a big city/small town problem or maybe a bit of middle west humility.
I call shenanigans. Monarch Coffee is not simply “good for Kansas City.” It is one of the very best coffee bar companies in the United States in 2020, offering a delicately balanced, exacting expression of modern coffee culture that manages to be both accessible and progressive at the same time. Founders Tyler and Jaime Rovenstine (they aren’t the only husband and wife duo on this list) have drawn on their equal and opposite strengths in building this place. He’s a decorated barista competitor and longtime industry pro; she’s an artist and graphic designer. Together they’ve assembled a smart, diverse, dedicated team of baristas to help advance the vibe and keep drinks flowing. The sum is greater than the parts.
Monarch’s original store is, in a word, stunning—a cream symphony of pastel white subway dot tile, dangling golden chandeliers, floral wallpaper and the city’s most beautiful espresso machine, a custom La Marzocco Linea in pistachio and chrome. I love how this cafe approaches the coffee shop menu experience, eschewing the “floating menu” or printed bar sheet in favor of a single standing podium, upon which the day’s coffee offerings are written. The whole thing screams class and dignity; it feels more like you’re at one of the city’s world class cocktail bars or a lovely small plate restaurant. In February, the Rovenstines opened a second Monarch near Kansas City’s Crown Center, featuring the same coffee program within smart, spacious digs.
A cafe cannot survive on vibe alone. Monarch is its own roasting company, and the coffee itself is lovely, roasted lighter than, say, Starbucks, but not so light as to be sour or tart. Across multiple visits here, I was roundly impressed by the quality of the drinks, including the bar’s tea program, which is stocked with a range of delicious green and black teas by Spirit Tea of Chicago.
But back to the vibe: During my time at Monarch, one thing stood out. Coffee has been rightly criticized in cities large and small across the United States as the harbinger of gentrification—a fundamentally rich white person’s pursuit that creates barriers (subconscious or otherwise) for the inclusion of diverse communities. This is something any coffee entrepreneur should be aware of in 2020, but the Rovenstines walk the walk, working with The Open Table to educate on diversity and leading anti-racism workshops within the cafe space. You see it in the cafe itself, among both staff and customers, a daily mingling of backgrounds and generations from around the city, no matter which side of Troost your parents lived on.
Classy and beautiful and welcoming, Monarch Coffee feels inclusive and accessible in a meaningful, modern way. Any city in America would be lucky to have a cafe like this—it’s one of the best cafes in America right now and the best in Kansas City.
You should order: The Dude Abides, as good of a “coffee cocktail” as I’ve ever had in a cafe setting. Monarch has essentially built a smoked coffee White Russian made with espresso, toasted walnut spice syrup, cream and hickory smoke. It comes out stunning, wafting with aromatic smoke and begging for a photograph.
The Wild Way Coffee
It’s rare for me to be blown away by a new coffee shop. I am a jaded, spoiled coffee drinker who has spent the past decade reviewing cafes around the world. I’ve kind of seen it all. What a lovely surprise, then, to wander down a quiet Crossroads backstreet and into a shotgun warehouse transformed into arguably the city’s cutest, most picturesque cafe. There is a living plant wall. There is a decommissioned Jeep stocked with cozy vintage Pendleton blankets, in which you are invited to sip your drink. At the center of it all is a vintage recreational trailer that husband and wife founders Jon and Christine Clutton have converted into an impressive professional mobile coffee bar.
The Cluttons are something of a Kansas City coffee power couple. Christine is an accomplished coffee professional by way of Austin, Texas. In 2016, at the ripe old age of twenty-four, she advanced her way up from a starting barista role to become a GM at Cuvee Coffee, an Austin-based roaster-retailer with a national footprint. Jon has a master’s degree in exercise science from the University of Texas. They’ve combined these backgrounds to create something rare: a young coffee company with a warm, welcoming aesthetic and the coffee science chops necessary to create startling good drinks. During warmer months, the cart travels, serving at farmers markets, corporate events, weddings and neighborhood festivals. A traveling coffee cart’s winter hideaway has no business being this charming, and yet the space is so thoughtful, with subtly excellent audio design and twinkling lights overhead. You’ll want to come here with someone you think is cute and take photos.
The drinks are just as good as the vibe. The Wild Way is a multi-roaster. In coffee industry parlance, this means they serve coffee from a variety of different independent coffee roasters around the United States. As a consumer, I love this approach, as it allows me to try different roasters all in one place, but it’s hard to pull off well. Coffee is a never-ending chain of variables and adjustments, and changing roasters only adds to the difficulty of the final equation. But the Cluttons have nailed it: I tried coffees from Lexington Coffee in Kentucky and Cat & Cloud in Santa Cruz prepared as filtered coffee and espresso, both ringing with clarity and complexity.
“We spritz the espresso puck with a bit of magnesium water to lift the acidity,” Christine told me as she dropped off my shot, tossing this off casually like one might a fashion compliment or an early season baseball take. But I assure you this is no casual thing. These tinges of science geek touches from the Cluttons enhance the product quality while never overwhelming the vibe. This is very, very hard to do—a tightrope act of taking coffee seriously but not, you know, too seriously.
You should order: One of everything, honestly! In lieu of that kind of time and caffeine tolerance, I recommend you try one of the day’s available single origin coffees two ways—as espresso and as filter brew. This offers a really interesting glimpse of a specific coffee though a slightly different lens, like ordering the brisket and the burnt ends.
No Kansas City coffee list is complete without mentioning Broadway Cafe, a Westport icon since 1992. And I’ve learned over the years that most cities have a place that fits the general description of Broadway: a Gen X coffeehouse stalwart dating back to the “alternative” years where you probably used to be able to smoke and many of the city’s coffee pros pulled shifts at some point.
It brings me great joy to be able to report on Broadway Cafe’s ongoing excellence and relevance in 2020. Their inclusion on this list is no lifetime achievement award. I genuinely loved my time at Broadway during the research portion of this article, reconfirming to me something that I’ve seen and felt on all past visits to Kansas City. This place is special—a gem, really—and balances living history with modern relevance in a way that feels innate and unique.
Broadway was founded back at the dawn of the Clinton Administration by Sarah Honan, who still co-owns the shop. Her partner in the business is Jon Cates, a musician whose father took him on a trip to Europe as a teenager, instilling in him a lifelong love of coffee. Cates started at Broadway as a barista and worked his way up to become manager and, eventually, co-owner, overseeing the roasting and business operations at Broadway. “Everything is manual, no computers,” he told my publication, Sprudge, back in 2015. “I guess you could say the punk rock ethic I had from playing music expanded into coffee.”
Indeed, the dream of the ’90s is very much alive at Broadway, and I mean this as a compliment. Over the course of a sunny Saturday morning at Broadway, you will find a multi-generational smorgasbord of Kansas City urban life wandering in and out the doors beneath the same antique turning fans, atop the same decades-old tile floor. Gen Z’s in post-ironic Bugs Bunny Denim bump shoulders with nattily dressed Gen X types reading (wait for it) the newspaper—an entire New York Times, in fact, which is an act of cafe comfort that feels almost defiant or subversive here in our all-electronic-everything 2020.
The coffee here is roasted in-house, sourced by the team at Broadway, and it’s good. Locals tell me it’s gotten a lot better over the past decade as Broadway has sought to stay current with the general coffee trends towards sourcing and roasting high-quality coffee. The food here is lovely as well, uncommonly good for a coffee shop, with hippy nods (chia cups, vegan stuff) sharing space with deliciously classic coffee cake.
Broadway has pulled off a neat trick for this phase of American coffee culture. It manages to be an institution that feels both current and historic, a beloved part of Westport mornings for generations that today contains generations within it. Living history, authentically retro, beloved for a reason, vibrating with the collected psychic energy and emotional currency of decades spent talking to friends or chilling quietly, playing chess or reading the paper, falling in love or breaking up, all of it over a cup of coffee.
You should order: The aforementioned coffee cake, for starters, and then an espresso con panna, a shot of espresso floated with a puff of fresh whipped cream. This was my first favorite coffee drink back in my own delinquent teenaged coffee bar years, but it has mostly disappeared from modern coffee bar menus today. Not at Broadway, where it’s proudly on the menu board, same as it ever was.
Oddly Correct Coffee
Once upon a time, Oddly Correct went way out on a limb in Kansas City’s coffee scene with a lighter roast profile, hand-brewed pour over coffees and original, eye-catching graphic design. A combination espresso bar and letterpress printer, Oddly’s presence amounted to avant garde when founder and illustrator Gregory Kolsto opened the doors in 2011. Today it turns out they were more like a vanguard. KC in 2020 has its pick of the litter when it comes to indie third wave coffee shops, and Oddly no longer feels like quite the same early cavalry charge. These days, Oddly has settled into a comfortable identity as a handsome, busy neighborhood coffee bar with much-lauded morning biscuits and some of the city’s best hand-brewed coffee. It’s wearing the transition quite well.
Visit on a weekend morning with the sun streaming in as the flow of city traffic on Main Street goes rushing past. You’ll find coffee service managed on a sleek, custom outfitted Slayer Espresso machine built in Seattle and a pour over bar mounted with Yama brewers from Japan. Oddly’s interior oozes atmosphere, all exposed brick and succulents, cacti and original art prints. There are low tables, nooks, bar seats and front window perches upon which to enjoy coffee or tea. Oddly’s tea program is perhaps the city’s best, with offerings from Hugo Tea and Spirit Tea of Chicago. The menu deftly walks a line between purist and approachable, with classic espresso and brewed coffee offerings alongside specials like lattes spiked with golden chai or bourbon vanilla.
This was revolutionary when it opened. Today Oddly is, happily and merely, just one of several very good coffee bars in KCMO. It’s watched a coffee scene grow up around it and settled into a new, grown-up identity as an elder statesman in the city’s scene. Now it’s leading the way again by focusing on sustainability, both environmental and professional, by doing away with takeaway cups in lieu of a popular reusable cup program and offering wage transparency bonuses to staffers whose hourly wages with tips fall below eighteen dollars.
You should order: If they still have biscuits left, get a sausage and pimento with a ten-ounce cup of house drip. Or try a gibraltar—it’s like a small latte—or some nice Spirit Tea oolong.
Pilgrim Coffee Company
There was so little buzz and hype around this place, deep in a nondescript JoCo mini-mall that’s home to Korean BBQ and an outpost of The Peanut, that we nearly missed it. I walked into Pilgrim Coffee alongside my editor, neither of us with a scrap of expectation or foreknowledge, to find ourselves delighted by the entire experience.
From the coffee bar to the generous seating to the bathrooms, this cafe is spotless and clearly overseen by a staff that cares. Pilgrim serves coffee from Post Coffee Roasters of Lee’s Summit, and at Pilgrim that equates to bright, piquant shots of espresso and meticulously brewed cups of filter coffee made using the Kalita Wave pour over brewer. I ordered both and paid just eight dollars—a bargain.
There are little classy touches throughout the space that helped anchor the experience for me, from the notNeutral flatware to the dropped ceiling above the espresso bar to the individually etched serving trays upon which my brewed coffee was presented. I had one of my favorite staff interactions here—a little smalltalk about the coffee, a friendly “how’s your day,” and the delivery of drinks to our table without shouting out my name. It all adds up to a quality experience.
Yes, we’re deep in the burbs here, and no, it wouldn’t shock me in the slightest to know that your church youth group meets here once a month. Good coffee is for everyone. I grew up in the burbs and had to drive half an hour to go somewhere “cool” for coffee. If this place had been down the street, I would have lived there as a kid. Heck, if it were down the street from me now, I’d be a regular on coffee quality alone. Sometimes the unhyped stuff is the coolest.
You should order: This was my favorite pour over service in the entire city. Pour over here is brewed on a Kalita Wave, a Japanese-made filter that coffee geeks love for the evenness of its grounds distribution and water solubility pass-through. (Long story.) I enjoyed a gorgeous Ethiopian pour over here, served on a charming etched tray, and even though this came in the middle of a multi-shop coffee crawl, we drank every last drop.
Noted: Coffee & Lunch at Black Dog
If you’re looking for a minimalist espresso bar experience with siphons and gadgets and the rarest coffee offerings, this is not your spot—and that’s okay. If you’re looking for lunch, pastries and a lived-in, comfortable spot for a job interview/friends date/bible small group meeting, Black Dog perfectly scratches the itch. Ibis is well-regarded for pastries for a reason, and here you can snack your way through the lineup: croissants, bear claws, four kinds of toast, fresh bread sandwiches. This is as much a restaurant as a coffee shop. It evokes an era where “coffee shop” meant something more than pour over.
There’s espresso and pour over available on offer here, but it sort of feels like doing it wrong; this is the place to get a Snickers latte or a cold brew with frothy Shatto milk, the richest, creamiest version of a cold brew drink you can find. I don’t think Black Dog represents the bleeding edge of coffee as culinary molecular gastronomy pursuit. I do think it’s a comfortable, well-loved bakery cafe with serviceable coffee, above-average breads and pastries and a lot of life history woven between its tables. It is perpetually packed and well-loved for a reason.
Noted: Gooey Butter Cake at Kaldi’s
I’m fascinated by the cross-state rivalry between Kansas City and St. Louis (it’s a pseudo-rivarly, depending on who you ask). The cities are vastly different, united only by the distant circumstances of Missouri statehood. Kansas City has much, much better food—and a better wine scene, cocktail spots and breweries. It’s not even close. Don’t @ me.
But if I may offer some outside perspective, what St. Louis has over KC by a country mile is the existence of a divine municipal pastry of note: the gooey butter cake.
Oh! A base of crusty, chewy, sugar-laden yellow cake, gone crunchy at the corners from caramelization. And yes! A tremulous heaping of custard, creamy and sweet and thick with egg protein, trembling ever so slightly at the touch of a fork. It should be topped with just enough powdered sugar to add a secondary touch of chalky texture before dissolving into sweet ambrosia.
With due respect to the black and white deli cookie of Manhattan and the Hawaiian shave ice, GBC is the finest American regional dessert. Happily, you can enjoy an exemplary version of it at Kaldi’s Coffee, a St. Louis micro-chain with two KC locations. (Confusingly they are within three blocks of each other on Country Club Plaza.) Go to Kaldi’s, order a GBC, and enjoy some drip coffee or espresso as a compliment—there is no finer dessert and coffee pairing in all of Missouri.
Noted: Coffee & Records at Sister Anne’s
Much has been written, and deservedly so, about the excellent vinyl and ’zine selection at Sister Anne’s, a record shop and cultural clearinghouse on East 31st Street. Named in tribute of legendary KKFI DJ and record shop owner Anne Winter, who passed in 2009, Sister Anne’s is also home to a sneakily great coffee program. Unlike many record stores or boutiques that make a bit of coffee, the service here is not an afterthought. Co-founder Jim Oshel takes his espresso seriously. He sources from Broadway Roasters and makes some of the city’s best straight espresso, all rum raisin and chocolate cookie. But the best thing I tried here was the chai, which comes from KC’s own indie maker ChaiPod—frothy, sweet and complexly spicy, it’s the perfect sip and shop to accompany you through the store’s kaleidoscopic collection of artists and styles, from Theloneous Monk to Super Furry Animals.