I want to give a shout out to Tricia T. who sent me a note telling me that she thought Westport Flea Market in the Westport Entertainment and Shopping area of Kansas City, MO had the best burgers in that area. I wasn't familiar with Westport Flea Market, so on a recent trip to K.C. I decided to have lunch there one day. I had trouble finding it, driving by it once. But when I figured out where it was, I was almost embarrassed that I didn't know about this place before.
From the street, the Westport Flea Market is pretty non-descript. For the uninitiated - like me - it sort of does look like a building that houses a decrepit flea market. And that's probably what I thought as I know I've driven past the place on Westport Road (see map) many times in the past. In fact, there's a Sonic Drive-In just across the street that I've eaten at a couple times in the past. Had I known a good burger joint was just across the street, I would have gladly ditched the Sonic burger in favor of a good ol' bar and grill burger.
Actually, the Westport Flea Market and Bar and Grill - in its present state - has been around since 1981. It truly is a flea market/bar and grill. There are a handful of booths run by vendors (hours vary). Looking into some of the fenced in spaces, it looked like an eclectic mix of kitsch and nostalgia.
The background story of Westport Flea Market goes back even further than their opening in 1981. Prior to World War II, the building housed the Calhoun Mantle and Tile Company - a business that made mantles for fire places and sold ceramic tiles for floors. Due to a downturn in home building during World War II, the company went out of business and the building sat vacant for a handful of years. In 1950, the building was bought by the old Kitty Clover potato chip company out of Omaha and served as their Kansas City-area factory until 1963.
The building was transformed into a restaurant in the mid-60's called The Place in Westport. It was primarily a bar and grill that sold burgers and beer - similar to the present day Westport Flea Market. It was sort of a bohemian type of place that featured dancing and also sold artwork from local artists. It was in business for just a few years before closing around 1973.
In the mid-70's, the building was transformed into a retail market space called Things Unlimited, the precursor to what became the Westport Flea Market. With the downturn in the economy in the late 70's, the flea market went into bankruptcy. A Kansas City area investor, Mel Kleb, bought the Westport Flea Market and reopened it as a bar/grill/flea market.
The Westport Flea Market thrived for years, very much known for their big juicy burgers and their variety of beers they had on tap. But in 2005, Hooters came calling, wanting to put in a Hooters restaurant in the Westport area of Kansas City. Kleb, being the consummate businessman, took their offer and began the process of selling the business.
Then two things happened. The first involved a young entrepreneur by the name of Joe Zwillenberg who found out that Kleb was selling the business. Long a fan of the Westport Flea Market, Joe contacted Kleb and wanted to buy the Westport Flea Market from him. Kleb told him that the deal was already consummated with Hooters. Undeterred, Zwillenberg, who ran a burger joint styled after the Westport Flea Market, finally sat down with Kleb and offered him a downpayment of $25,000 and showed him a line of credit from his bank to finance the remaining part of the purchase. Kleb still resisted, saying the deal with Hooters was done. However, Kleb told the young Zwillenberg that if the deal fell through, it was his to have. Zwillenberg was determined to have the Hooters deal fall through.
The second thing that happened was when the Westport Neighborhood Association found out that the Hooters corporation was going to demolish the existing building to put up a new restaurant, they put up a fight to stop the demolition. While the fight was going on to stop Hooters from building a new restaurant, Kleb was getting checks from Hooters on a monthly basis to purchase the building and business. However, due to an accounting oversight Kleb didn't receive a check one month. Kleb immediately called it a breach of contract and told Hooters that the deal was over. He sold the business to Joe Zwillenberg.
Two months later on March 1, 2006, Kleb and Zwillenberg consummated their deal with the "passing of the burger" - a five-pound ceremonial burger that was made for the occasion. (Picture at right courtesy KC Confidential.com) Zwillenberg brought his "Joe's Burgers" concept over to the Westport Flea Market and the rest, as they say, is history.
Zwillenberg is no stranger to the food service industry. He has a long history of working in various capacities in a number of restaurants in the Kansas City area. He was a singing waiter at the age of 17, he was a bartender at an upscale bar/restaurant at the age of 20 - both jobs he got by lying about his age.
After graduating with a degree in hotel and restaurant management from the University of Missouri, Zwillenberg started to work for the Gilbert/Robinson restaurant corporation, owners of the Houlihan's restaurant chain and J. Gilbert's Wood Fired Steaks in suburban Overland Park. He managed a couple Houlihan's in the Kansas City area before he decided he wanted to get into business for himself in the mid-90's.
After a short experience as a partner in a restaurant that soured him on ever having a partner again, Zwillenberg started Joe Joe's Italian Eatery, an Italian-style bistro in Kansas City's mid city area. Joe Joe's is said to be the first place to serve panini sandwiches in the Kansas City area.
There was a Hardee's just across the street from Joe Joe's and it closed up a couple years after Zwillenberg opened his Italian bistro. Zwillenberg had been looking at wanting to do a catering company and he ended up buying the old Hardee's and opening his catering business - Joe Joe's Catering. It continues to be one of the top catering businesses in Kansas City today.
Having a large love for the Westport Flea Market concept, Zwillenberg lifted a menu from the business on one visit and used it for his blue print for his own burger joint, Joe's Burgers. It wasn't long after he opened his burger joint that he found out that the Westport Flea Market was up for sale. It was then he contacted Mel Kleb and that's the beginning of their relationship which eventually led to Zwillenberg taking over the Westport Flea Market, saving the building and sparing the Westport area from the mediocre food served at a Hooters.
It was around 1:30 when I got into the Westport Flea Market. I took a quick look around and decided to have a seat at the L-shaped bar. I looked behind the bar and saw their very impressive line up of draft beers that they have on tap. I wasn't certain I wanted a beer, but looking at all those tappers sort of made me thirsty.
I took a menu and began to look through it to see what they had to offer at Westport Flea Market. Actually, there's a lot more than just burgers on the menu at Westport Flea Market. They have a number of sandwiches, including Joe Zwillenberg's famous grilled chicken panini that he brought over from his days running his Italian bistro. The menu features a large array of appetizers, a handful of salads, daily specials and a special kids menu. In fact, their burger menu is only three items long - the Flea Market burger, the smaller Mini Market burger, and a patty melt that features the Mini Market burger on a toasted rye bread with grilled onions and Swiss cheese.
The burgers have been named "Best in Kansas City" by a number of polls consistently over the past 20+ years. Westport Flea Market gets their beef from McGonigle's Meat Market, a famous Kansas City butcher shop that is nationally known for their steaks and other cuts of meat. It's been awhile since I've done an entry on a butcher shop. The next time I go to Kansas City, I need to take a large cooler with me and get some beef from McGonigle's and do a Road Tips entry on the place.
A waitress/bartender came over and greeted me after a bit. She asked if I wanted something to drink and I asked back, "Do you have Boulevard Pale Ale on tap?" Actually, that was a pretty stupid question - any beer bar worth their salt in Kansas City has Boulevard Pale Ale on tap. She said that they did and wondered if I was ready to order some food. I had noticed in the short time that I was there that a guy was calling out people's names over an in-house P.A. system and they would go to a window and pick up their food orders. I said, "Do I order food from you?"
She said, "Yep! We'll call out your name and you pick up your food at the window over there." She pointed at a small dining area just beside the bar area. "There's a small condiment bar down there and you dress your food with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, whatever."
I said, "Well, I understand your burgers are pretty good."
"The best in town," she quickly shot back.
I ordered up a burger, medium. She asked, "You want cheese on it? Cheddar, Swiss, pepperjack..." I stopped her at pepperjack.
She then asked, "You want any grilled mushrooms, bacon ?" I said mushrooms sounded great. And I got a choice of sides with the burger, as well. Curly fries, cole slaw or cottage cheese were my choices, but for an upcharge I could get onion rings. I wasn't certain I wanted fries, but cottage cheese sure sounded good to me.
After about 15 minutes, I heard my name called over the P.A. and I went over to the pick up window to get my burger. The condiment bar featured onions, pickles, lettuce, tomatoes and some other things. I got some onions, pickles and the tomato slices, though small, looked very fresh for the time of year.
Sitting down with the burger, well... You ever have food sat down in front of you and the smell of it is so good that you KNOW that it will be good? That's what the Flea Market burger smelled like. There were a gob of fresh grilled mushrooms on and around the burger that was covered with a thick blanket of pepperjack cheese.
My first bite - it was ecstasy. Oh, my God! I immediately said, "Ummmmm...." as I chewed my first bite. The burger was juicy and overly flavorful. It had that old time flat grill seasoned taste to it. The juices just flowed out of the burger. The sesame-seeded lightly toasted bun was thick, but still pretty light to chew. It went well with the burger meat. About the only quibble I had with the burger was that it was probably more medium-rare than medium. I know that if my wife would have ordered a burger medium and it came out like this she would have sent it back. But I was fine with it. I'll just have to remember to order it medium-well the next time.
With the great tasting grilled mushrooms, the fresh and forward tasting onions and the tangy pickles, this burger was a winner. I immediately realized had to put it in the Top Ten of my Best Burger List. I'll have to figure out where I'll put it when I finally do my updated Best Burger List 2012 sometime in the coming weeks. I could easily see why it's been named the best burger in Kansas City for so many years. And I was also a little embarrassed that I hadn't had one of these burgers before this visit. As many times that I've been in Kansas City in the past, I should have known about Westport Flea Market before this.
As I got finished, my waitress/bartender came over and asked how the burger was. "Killer," I replied enthusiastically. And it was.
She handed me my bill and I got out my credit card to hand to her. She said, "Uh, normally we don't take credit cards..."
I said, "Oh! OK! No problem!" I got a $20 bill out of my pocket and handed it to her. She gave me $4.65 in change and I left $3 bucks for her tip. OK, so rookie mistake and something to remember for next time - Westport Flea Market only takes cash. They have an ATM in their billiards area for those who are caught short on cash for their food.
Before I left, I took a look around the place. Toward the street side of Westport Flea Market there's a dining room with a number of vintage beer cans that line the walls on shelves. This room was actually closed off for diners at this time, but they have two other dining areas - the one pictured above near where the pick-up window is located, and a dining area up near the bar.
So, thanks to Tricia for turning me onto Westport Flea Market for a great burger. I was overly impressed with the place, the food, the service and and the history behind the business. Once again, I'm somewhat embarrassed by the fact that I had no idea that a great burger place like this existed in a city that I've been traveling to for over 25 years. I highly recommend going to Westport Flea Market if you're in K.C. and want to go to a fun and interesting place with a world-class burger.