It’s 11 p.m. on a Thursday, and I’ve just ordered pomme frites at Ça Va, Kansas City’s beloved champagne bar. “Champagne for the people,” they declare. Managed by Caitlin Corcoran, the tiny bar is located in historic Westport. Despite its size, Ça Va maintains the Westport tradition of accommodating the large numbers of people passing through on a given day. In fact, as I look around, I note that even at this late hour on a weekday, it feels like everyone comes here.
Behind me there’s a slender lineup of circular tables along an exposed-brick wall, most with customers gathered tightly around champagne flutes aglow in the candlelight. A trim guy in a button-up chats amicably with me over a glass of rosé. He travels globally for work constantly, he says (accurately too, given his many experiences at Japanese hostess bars). He calls Ça Va one of his “go-to” bars because “it’s small and feels European.” Check. Caitlin’s a self-proclaimed Midwestern girl, but she’s managed to keep it real for even the worldliest of regulars. Above us, a strand of garland champagne corks recalls traditional yuletide cranberries. The trend here is the unexpected by way of the familiar.
The stochastic décor makes sense this way. “We want it to be a Midwestern-Frenchy bistro,” Caitlin explains. Um, okay. Hard to picture. Sitting here now, though, I can dig it.
As I settle in at my seat at the bar, I recall my conversation with Caitlin first thing this morning. The bar was empty, unlike now. Amidst stacked chairs and candle refills, she parted with her laptop long enough to describe to me how a girl like her ends up in a place like this.
“I knew from a very early age I wanted to own a restaurant someday,” Caitlin says. Cloaked in a black floral kimono, she handed me a lusty coffee pour over in an honest mug. “I made that declaration when I was 14 or 15. My mom was a pastry chef while I was growing up, so I spent a lot of time in kitchens. She taught me from the age of five how to sit at a bar and talk to the bartender, order a kiddie cocktail, share apps and bites. I wanted to have my own place, create a culture.”
The champagne queen’s apparent flair with morning brew actually has everything to do with her journey towards her childhood dream. She once hoped that a serious job in coffee would make her aspirations to run her own establishment a reality. But the workings of the coffee biz were different than she imagined, with profits coming from distribution rather than environment. After a decade of hard work, Caitlin moved on. “I didn’t want to sell coffee to everyone in Kansas City. I just wanted a cute little corner of the world I could call my own.”
Howard Hanna, chef-partner at the Rieger, started Ça Va and appointed management to make his vision come to life. However, the bar didn’t thrive. Caitlin was confident she understood what Howard wanted to create. “It was struggling with things I thought I could help improve,” she explains. In October 2014 Caitlin hired a new staff and started over, working hard to bring Howard’s dream to life: a French wine bar characterized by European details and tight quarters.
This evening, I note that the result is a renaissance of sorts. My cognac cocktail, the Alpine Valley, smells of a leathered cigar lounge with scents of rosemary, walnut and inexplicably raisin (not in there, I checked). Meanwhile, although the structure of the bar is indeed French, I’m reminiscing about my Grandma’s attic, estate sales, and ghost stories. I think that’s partly from the cascading white candles on opposite ends of the bar–all twice as wide as my head–dripping wax onto the floor from stalactite formations. It also might be because of where we are.
Ça Va sits only a bit over a block from Kansas City’s very first intersection: Westport Road and Pennyslvania Avenue. A trading post owned by Daniel Boone’s grandson once sat at that junction (present-day Kelly’s Westport Inn), and from there pioneers outfitted their wagons for their respective journeys on the Oregon, Santa Fe and California trails. Once known as the “portal to the west,” and named aptly by founder John McCoy as West Port because he saw it as a “port of entry into the vast western wilderness,” this neighborhood has always collected a lively lot of people and places. Today, Westport still maintains a nostalgic feel. And French-themed Ça Va fits right in.
History and geography might contribute to the bar’s unique culture, but Caitlin’s made sure customers know they don’t have to take it all too seriously. With 100 bottles of champagne in the keep, it’s still important to her that staff mention they also carry Miller High Life, the champagne of beers. And apparently also Prosecco on tap, I notice, as evidenced by the plastic gondolier on the tap handle. “This is Giovanni,” Sarah, a bartender, introduces us. She fluffs out its customized rainbow hula skirt. Sarah’s wearing a rust colored dress, hair tied in a simple knot behind her head. Behind her another woman with a ladylike fohawk works the line in gray linen pants and a jersey knit sweater.
Caitlin’s working behind the bar too; elbow-to-elbow with the employees. “People tend to notice that we are a disproportionately female or female-identifying staff. I’m actually giving females a chance tend bar—whoa, crazy!” Caitlin’s eyes roll beneath the large bun atop her head.
Caitlin’s right, people do notice. In August of this year, a cheeky Yelp review by David W. reads:
“This place is a little girly. The drinks are kinda girly. The menu is kinda girly. I liked it…”
David W. isn’t the only one who likes it. The New York Times Travel section highlighted a few characteristic Westport establishments last year in a write-up on the bars in Kansas City entitled “In Kansas City, All Things Craft”. Ça Va was among the noteworthy. The write-up begins with praise, noting that at Ça Va “sparkling wine breaks out of its white tablecloth confines.”
From my cozy spot below the rack of clinking wine glasses where I sit among so many other Kansas City commoners—work night notwithstanding— I’ll nosh my fries in agreement. Bring Caitlin Corcoran your huddled masses, and they can drink champagne…Or Miller High Life.