Since Henry Perry, the self-styled father of Kansas City barbecue, opened his first lunch stand in 1908, locals and tourists have been trying to pin down what exactly defines the KC barbecue style. Misconceptions abound. Many think that thin-sliced brisket and tomato sauce sweetened with molasses are requirements of the genre. Others point to burnt ends, one of the city’s proudest inventions: fatty, smoky cubes of beef brisket with a crunchy, caramelized bark. But pitmasters here are just as preoccupied with beef and pork ribs, hand-cranked sausages, moist and salty pit ham, and other preparations of brisket.
Here’s as close to a barbecue thesis statement as you’ll get: The modern Kansas City “style” is doing a little bit of everything well and doing it with a side of sauce.
Under that expansive umbrella, the barbecue restaurants on this list range from walk-up windows with a handful of picnic tables to full-service restaurants with cocktails and cloth napkins. The best way to experience KC barbecue is to visit both the old-school institutions that helped define the genre and the new guard of innovative pitmasters expanding its boundaries.
Liz Cook is a freelance writer based in Kansas City, Missouri, and the creator of the experimental food newsletter Haterade.
Note: Restaurants on this map are listed geographically.