Author's note: This week's entry will be longer than most because it's about the bar where I spend the most time. Please excuse the wordiness and enjoy the story of what is currently my favorite place to hang out.
Zoo Bar is a place that so few people know about and is so hard to find, that oftentimes first-time visitors have no idea what to expect and may feel a little nervous. Instead they are surprised to find themselves inside what is probably the friendliest and most laid-back place in town. I would venture to call it the best dive bar in Kansas City. And that can't be far from the truth, to be thriving after nearly 26 years and counting in a location where none of its neighbors have lasted.
The bar is very small... in fact the bar itself takes about half of the usable space. There are seats for maybe about 25, but no one seems to mind standing when they have to.
The most striking feature of Zoo Bar is the graffiti covering its walls, ceiling, and nearly every other accessible permanent surface other than the bar itself. In the mid 1980s the bar was repainted and patrons threw such a fit about loss of the scrawlings that it has never been painted since. More than 20 years of Zoo Bar history is now inscribed upon the walls. Many people just leave their name and the date, while others draw pictures or write a sentence or two about the visit. Markers are left out on the bar for anyone who wants to add themselves to the ink-on-paint tapestry.
Another feature Zoo Bar is very proud of is its old flip-style CD jukebox. The owner and bartenders have spent years editing and refining the mix of selections, literally agonizing over what CD to remove if a new one is added. The result is such a well-balanced mix of music that almost any visitor can find music they like, yet no matter what gets played it fits the style of the bar perfectly. Occasionally spontaneous bar dancing has been known to break out.
Zoo Bar has no beer taps, but it does have nearly 30 varieties of beer in bottles and cans. This includes several premium and foreign beers as well. And as long as it doesn't require a blender (which no real drink ever should... especially a drink in a dive bar), the bartenders can mix up just about anything else you may want. Most importantly, this is one the cheapest places to drink in downtown Kansas City.
The bartenders are all a fun bunch. Ronnie or Ellen (who was the first bartender I met there back in 2006) will take care if you during the daytime, while Carol, the Sarahs, Cameron, Samantha, or Shizzy will be happy to serve you at night. Collectively the bartending staff call themselves the Zooettes. Except for Cameron, of course.
On Saturday the bar offers a free lunch buffet. All of the food is home cooked, usually by the owner and often with a bit of a kick of spices. The menu changes each weekend and is usually written on the whiteboard inside the front door a day or two in advance.
The owner, Preston Cain, is a friendly guy who often will stop in at some point in the evening. An attorney who practices out of the law office above the bar, Preston runs the bar almost as a hobby. Preston took over operation after the original owner, prosecuting attorney Ray Webb, passed away. A ceiling tile commemorating Webb sits behind the bar, while Preston is showcased in magic marker on the opposite wall.
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When I made my first visit to Zoo in June 2006, a friend and I were looking for a place that we did not know for certain even still existed. We had only a name and a general idea of the location that I had picked up from a 2-year-old list of businesses mentioned in a bicycle blog. Indeed, the Zoo Bar was so hard to find that we looked directly at it several times, from right across the street, and did not see it. The only signage was a small engraved wooden sign inside the window. Somehow I caught this sign out of the corner of my eye as we were giving up the hunt and walking away.
When we stepped inside, everyone inside stared at us and we realized we were intruders in a very private, close-knit community. So we was surprised when the moment of silence was broken with "Welcome to the Zoo!" as a woman moved her coat in order to offer us a place to sit.
The regulars were a mix of lawyers, government workers, and construction workers. Ellen, our bartender, opened our cans of beer while we began talking with the gang about topics ranging from a tragic bicycle accident that had occurred around the corner an hour earlier, to KCTV's Katie Horner, to people having sex at a nearby bus stop. One Zoo fixture, a man named Les, gave us a lesson on the health benefits of drinking Goldschlager.
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Zoo Bar opened on October 24, 1982, in the southeast corner of a 2-story law office building at 12th & McGee. It was the direct descendant of Up The Street, a bar that had opened in 1977 on the 12th Street side of the same building. It was a lawyer hangout and featured pool tables in its back room (a room that today is the wig shop next door). In 1984 a fire closed the bar for a few months.
In the late 1990s downtown went into a slide and most of the bars along what was once a mighty dive bar row closed. Eventually only Zoo Bar remained. It operated as a daytime-only bar for years, supported by the daily visits of a small but very dedicated group of regulars. (Many of whom are still regulars today.) The larger back room was walled off, becoming retail space that today serves as the wig shop operating next door. What remained was the tiny sliver of a bar that we see today, with the cutouts that used to allow access to the back room still obvious at both ends of the bar.
In early 2007, anticipating increased foot traffic from the new Sprint Center and Power & Light District, additional bartenders were hired and a night shift was added. Lighted beer signs were added for the first time, and exterior signage was put up. The gamble paid off, and Zoo Bar's patronage has increased tremendously. At night Zoo becomes a favorite hangout of downtown residents and visitors to the new entertainment venues.
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Today Zoo is a place where adults of all ages and all walks of life enjoy relaxing. There's never a band -- only the jukebox -- and the TVs are rarely on (usually just for Royals games) so it's a good place for conversation. And with the small space, conversations usually end up spreading to include diverse groups of people who would otherwise normally never likely cross paths. It's the kind of place where everyone treats each other right and looks out for each other.
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Because of the new signs Zoo Bar isn't as hard to find today as it was when I first visited, but it can still be a bit of a challenge. It is located on McGee, immediately north of the Sprint Center, about halfway up the block. It is directly across the street from the McGee Street entrance to the Board of Education building. If you are driving, note that McGee is one-way northbound, and accessible only from 13th Street which is one-way westbound. There is no parking lot but the metered spaces out front are free evenings and weekends. Still, being adjacent to the Sprint center and only 1 block from the Power & Light District, many visitors walk there from other downtown destinations.
Note: the map pointer below is incorrect. It is pointing to the correct building but the 12th Street side. Zoo Bar is on the southeast corner of that building, on the McGee side. (Ironically, the pointer is pointing to the original 1977 incarnation that was called Up The Street.)
1220 McGee, Kansas City, MO