David Nicolas

Worldly yet down-home, Kansas City, Missouri, is full of surprises. Those who expect flat prairie find instead miles of hilly, tree-lined boulevards. The Country Club Plaza, a 14-block stretch of high-end shops, could be in Seville, and the only city with more fountains is Rome. It's a town where a nascar speedway and a booming art scene can coexist peaceably. Hole-in-the-wall barbecue joints sit around the corner from upscale dining establishments. And although St. Louis may have that famous arch to symbolize its status as the gateway to frontier country, KC MO (Kay-cee mo), as residents call it, feels more like the spot where East meets the Old West.

Glimmers of the Jazz Age shine through at the newly renovated Hotel Phillips (106 W. 12th St.; 800/433-1426 or 816/221-7000; doubles from $89), from the Art Deco lobby with marble floors and wrought-iron railings to the sleek bathrooms. • Michael Jackson, the King of Pop himself, and arena rockers like Aerosmith have crashed at the Fairmont Kansas City at the Plaza (401 Ward Pkwy.; 800/441-1414 or 816/756-1500; doubles from $159), a 366-room hotel that was a Ritz-Carlton until 1999. The clubby, mahogany-lined Oak Bar—and its 200-plus martini list—draws a polished crowd. • Kansas City's lodging options keep expanding, with the addition of two upscale bed-and-breakfasts. LaFontaine Inn (4320 Oak St.; 888/832-6000 or 816/753-4434; doubles from $125), a Georgian Colonial house near the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, has four large rooms with Victorian touches such as cherrywood poster beds and antique pedestal sinks. The owners of Southmoreland on the Plaza (116 E. 46th St.; 816/531-7979; doubles from $125), Mark Reichle and Nancy Miller Reichle, divided the distance between their hometowns—he's from southern California, she's a New Yorker—and chose Kansas City as the spot to open their urban inn. Each of the 12 rooms, some of which have whirlpool tubs, decks, or working fireplaces, is named for a KC notable, such as baseball's Leroy "Satchel" Paige or candy royalty Clara and Russell Stover.

At Café Sebastienne (4420 Warwick Blvd.; 816/561-7740; dinner for two $70), housed in the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, you can sit in a sunny enclosed courtyard or indoors, where works by Frederick J. Brown adorn the walls. •A trip to America's heartland wouldn't be complete without a steak—Plaza III The Steakhouse (4749 Pennsylvania Ave.; 816/753-0000; dinner for two $100) uses the best local corn-fed beef in five substantial cuts, from porterhouse to hometown favorite Kansas City strip. • Café Allegro (1815 W. 39th St.; 816/561-3663; dinner for two $90) balances several ethnic influences on its menu. Try the "drunken" salmon with shiitakes in sake sauce.

Queuing Up For 'Cue
With nearly 90 places to eat barbecue, the art of smoked meat is almost a religion here; one bite and you, too, will be thanking a deity for short ribs and burnt ends (the crispy parts of beef brisket). Two of the best are Gates Bar-B-Q (1221 Brooklyn St.; 816/483-3880; dinner for two $36), which serves a traditional sweet-and-savory sauce, and Bryant's (1727 Brooklyn St.; 816/231-1123; dinner for two $30), whose sauce is tangier, with a touch of cayenne. Other hot spots: LC's (5800 Blue Pkwy.; 816/923-4484; dinner for two $20), whose huge portions and killer burnt ends bring BBQ fans from all over KC; and Lil' Jake's Eat It & Beat It (1227 Grand Blvd.; 816/283-0880; weekday lunch only, $16 for two), where the spicy sauce lives up to the sassy name.

At the Crossroads
A once-shaky midtown neighborhood known as the Crossroads has been transformed into a vibrant district, thanks to a group of pioneering artists and a famed chef. Lidia Bastianich (of Lidia's Italian Table on PBS) led the way in 1998, renovating an old freight house for Lidia's Kansas City (101 W. 22nd St.; 816/221-3722; dinner for two $50). Some 14 galleries call the area home, including Dolphin (1901 Baltimore Ave.; 816/842-4415) and Light Box Gallery (9 W. 19th St.; 816/221-0012). Sitting on the formerly to-be-avoided corner of 19th and Main, Zin (1900 Main St.; 816/527-0120; dinner for two $80) attracts young scenesters and foodies. Shelly Pierre Rash, who cooked at Chicago's revered Trio, is in charge of the nouveau American kitchen. Down the street is the Curious Sofa (329 Southwest Blvd.; 816/221-6600), a mix of new and refurbished furniture, plus linens and vintage paintings. Retro Inferno (1712 Main St.; 816/842-4004) has 10,000 square feet of Mid-Century Modern designs from Edward Wormley and Heywood-Wakefield, and even the occasional piece by Mies van der Rohe.

Mention shopping in Kansas City and you'll be directed to the Country Club Plaza (4745 Central St.; 816/753-0100), an upmarket cluster of stores worth a visit for its Spanish architecture. But if you're looking for something out of the ordinary, seek out these originals. • Asiatica (4824 Rainbow Blvd.; 913/831-0831) recycles silk from Japanese kimonos into men's bow ties and women's separates. It also sells chic home accessories. • Bob Jones Shoes (1914 Grand Blvd.; 816/474-4212) offers five huge showrooms of men's and women's designer footwear, all at significantly discounted prices. • Antiques market Portobello Road (1708 W. 45th St.; 816/931-2280) has both European-style finds and unusual handcrafted items.

Trying to nab a spot by the jam-packed bar at re:Verse (618 Ward Pkwy.; 816/931-7811) may have you seeing red—beyond the crimson walls—but the house drink is sure to calm your nerves (imagine a Cosmopolitan with a splash of reduced rose water). • Bored with cocktail chatter?Catch a movie at the Empire Room (334 E. 31st St.; 816/561-2640), a swanky club with a screening room in back. The Martini Navratilova (Godiva chocolate liqueur, Irish cream, Chambord, vanilla vodka) will satisfy your sweet tooth till those final credits roll. • KC's jazz history is legendary: Charlie "Bird" Parker and Pat Metheny, among others, started their careers here. For traditional tunes, head to the Blue Room (1600 E. 18th St.; 816/474-2929). If you want to see your performers up close—really close—stop by Phoenix Piano Bar (302 W. Eighth St.; 816/472-0001), where the tiny counter is practically on top of the musicians onstage.