The first time I visited John Brown’s Underground, my husband declared it the best bar in the Midwest. We’ve lived in Kansas City for the past 20 years and we’ve been to all the notable local bars. Both in Kansas City, Missouri and on the Kansas side of the state line. So this was a bold statement. I’ve been lucky enough to have visited some of the most incredible bars around the world, so I know a great bar when I visit one. I didn’t think my husband was wrong, but I did insist on three separate visits in 2021 to make sure.
Lawrence, KS is roughly 45 minutes west of Kansas City, MO. Home to the University of Kansas (or KU as people call it), it’s definitely a college town. Full of great dive bars and breweries, it was a bit surprising to find this incredible bar tucked off the main street. And down in a basement. Honestly, it’s hard to say what level of ‘best’ John Brown’s Underground is–the State of Kansas (yes), the Midwest (yes, even if you include Chicago), but perhaps in the United States. Want to know why? Let’s go!
Reason #1: Creative Menu Design
You might be surprised that I would start making my case not with the cocktails, but the menus. Hang in there, the drinks are coming. But first, the menus at John Brown’s Underground are works of art. Not only are they visually beautiful with illustrations and graphic design, they are themed. The bar staff work together on the concept for the menu and tie them together with flavors, stories, and imagery. On my first and second visits, I enjoyed “A Field Guide to Understanding & Enjoyment.” This whimsical menu took guests on a journey through flavors and nature. The drinks were inspired by unexpected pairings in the wild. They said of the menu, “While they may seem strange at first, the harmonies between the flavors in your cocktail are not so different from the bonds between these creatures.”
In “Places from Your Dreams” (the current menu), you’ll find representations of déjà vu, wrinkles in time, memories, and recurring dreams. The vibe is trippy but calming, familiar yet new. Accomplishing the feat of putting things that are sometimes hard to explain into a cocktail is just next-level attention to detail. It’s not just lip service either. For example, one of the current cocktails contains an ingredient from many of our collective childhoods, Strawberry Kiwi Capri Sun. Just one sip and you’re back with your friends after school.
Reason #2: Delicious Cocktails
John Brown’s Underground will delight you with every drink on the menu. This comes from multiple visits, several to-go cocktails, and going with a friend twice so I could taste even more of the menu. I seriously have not had a single drink there and thought, “hmm, not for me.” This is even with a wide range of ingredients, both those I have had and others that were either new or sounded crazy. Black garlic in a drink? Sweet corn? Lemongrass Pop Rocks? I’ll take it all! Here are several of my favorites (pictured clockwise from the top):
- Last Card Magic: Letherbee gin, mustard seed amaro, Essensia orange muscat wine, snow pea, peach
- No False Idols: TCRL 2013 Australian rum, Malort, Cocchi Americano, rooibos tea, golden caramel
- We All Float: La Venenosa Racialla Tabernas, Ming River Baijiu, Mulassano dry vermouth, watermelon, umami bitters
- Let Me Be Clear: Probitas blended rum, Clairin Le Rocher Haitian rum, Hampden Rum Fire Jamaican rum, Bitter Bianco, clarified pineapple, lime acid
If you read through that list and don’t want to run into this bar, we might not be friends. Just saying.
Reason #3: Hospitality
When you walk into a business where the employees care about not only their jobs but those that they work with, it’s palpable. This is certainly the case here. Their commitment to one another and to the bar is evident every time you walk into the space. When the bar is busy, they still take the time to talk you through the menu and make suggestions. More than once, I have seen different bartenders and servers check in with multiple tables to see how they are liking their selections. It’s like a group of friends or roommates are having you over for a party and they want to make sure everyone leaves happy. Good hospitality can definitely be observed, but the best is felt.
Reason #4: Expertise and Passion
If you couldn’t tell from the drinks, the bar staff know their stuff. They search and source ingredients from far and wide and can tell you all about them. And, not only do they educate themselves, they invite their guests to join them in the journey. In July I attended a blind tasting of rare un-aged spirits with Kate Perry, North American market manager for La Maison & Velier. It was a fantastic event with incredible spirits and I learned so much. John Brown’s Underground also has a Rum Club that will pop up on their Instagram account. It lets you try coveted spirits and get the t-shirt to prove it.
While I can easily say that this bar is on the rise, I am not the only one. (Special thanks to Jay Sanders at Drastic Measures for the tip to check this bar out initially.) The bar has been racking up some National press. It won’t be long until everyone knows about this amazing bar, so get yourself there soon! Trust me, it’s that good.