Best Kansas City Dive, Potluck Fridays, cash only, billiards
We denizens of dive bars owe a debt of gratitude to our forefathers and mothers—the daylight drinkers of Kansas City—who kept the Zoo Bar going as a daytime only establishment during the lean times when downtown Kansas City was a ghost town. The Sprint Center changed all that when it brought revelers by the thousands to downtown’s once vacant streets for concerts, basketball tournaments, and the occasional monster truck rally. “The Sprint Center increased business,” regular Sandy Sutton tells me, “because this is the cheapest place near Power & Light.”
Sutton sits at the bar wearing a neatly trimmed white beard and a flowery Hawaiian button-up; a pint of beer nestled into his right hand. “November 2nd, 1982,” Sutton says when he overhears my conversation with the bartender, “that’s the day the Zoo Bar opened.” Sutton tells me about potluck Friday nights, when regulars bring their favorite dishes and everyone shares. He explains how little has changed in the years he’s been coming to the Zoo Bar. “It’s still cash only, nothing on tap, no happy hour, and the customers still bring in food.”
Although the Zoo Bar doesn’t have a kitchen, you might encounter a bartender carrying around a beat-up silver cookie sheet overflowing with bagel bites that you’ll be unable to resist. Like most caring mothers, the bartender just wants you to eat, eat darling please, you’re skin and bones. Those bagel bites help take the edge off the $5 top-shelf shots, $1 Jell-O shots, $2.75 domestic cans, and $3.75 imports.
“Grab a marker,” a pool player barks at me, “and write on the goddamn wall.” You won’t find much blank space on the Zoo Bar’s walls. “In the mid 1980s,” writes Scooter of The Weekly Dive, “the bar was repainted and patrons threw such a fit about loss of the scrawlings that it has never been painted since.” You can almost hear the drunken confessions and bad plans conjured up on the walls, the light fixtures, the bathrooms, and everywhere. You even get a sense of history and patriotism from the words VALLEY FORGE scribbled on the bathroom ceiling.
The Zoo Bar claims title as ‘best dive bar in downtown KC’, and I can’t argue its statement. This bar is more than a scuzzy, tiny, friendly bar filled with stuffed animals and kitschy décor like a Johnson County license plate that reads, Slee_z. More than anything the Zoo Bar belongs to the customers, the ones who kept it going and who marked up its walls; and to the city it lives in. What other bar has it’s own historian schooling the uninitiated in all the things that makes the Zoo Bar Kansas City’s best dive bar? “Having the prettiest bartender,” Sutton says, winking her way, “sure doesn’t hurt.” Get down to the Zoo Bar and join the thousands who came before you to this tiny outpost of Kansas City drinking excellence, sign the wall, and don’t forget to thank the men and women who still keep the Zoo Bar afloat.