Sometimes when I travel, I try to find a place that is a local landmark that isn't pretentious or overly high brow. A good dive bar, if you will. Every city seems to have one, sometimes more than one. But for the years that I've been traveling to Kansas City, one bar kept coming up in conversations with the locals as to what would be the quintessential dive bar in the area. And the consensus has been the original Peanut at 50th and Main. (see map) It had been years since I'd been in the Peanut and I wanted to stop in and get a burger on a recent trip to Kansas City.
The Peanut started out in the early 30's as a speakeasy that transformed into a legitimate bar after Prohibition ended garnering one of the cities first (and currently oldest) liquor licenses. It was called the Peanut for not only its small size, but because of the two story apartment building directly behind the place that was known as "The Peanuts", a take-off on the stately "Walnuts" apartment building three blocks west. In the 40's and 50's, it was a barbecue joint, but began to get run down in the 60's into the 70's. The owners quit serving food in the late 70's and it became just another run down gin joint.
Enter Rich Kenny. Kenny and a fellow Omaha native, Gregg Johnson, founded the Minsky's Pizza chain in 1974 not far from the original Peanut. By 1980, they had six locations and it was at that point that Rich Kenny wanted to get out of the Minsky's deal because he thought they were growing too quickly. Plus, he had just gotten married to his wife, Melinda, and they were looking to start a family.
Pictured right - Rich Kenny. Photo courtesy Business Journals.com
Rich Kenny had taken a job as an industrial waste equipment salesman, but had his eye on purchasing The Peanut to fulfill his dream of running his own bar. In 1981 - with a $20,000 investment - he took over the failing Peanut's assets and lease. One of the first things he wanted to do was to start serving food and it didn't hurt that Melinda was a caterer.
The couple struggled at first, Rich held onto his sales job while Melinda ran the kitchen. But her food started to garner a following and Rich was able to eventually quit his sales job and run the Peanut full time.
In 1987, Melinda asked Rich, "Do you want to be a bartender when you're 50 years old?" His answer was a resounding, "Of course I do!" With that they set their sights on expanding the Peanut empire. In 1990, the Kenny's found another bar in downtown Kansas City that had fallen on hard times, the Quality Hill Bar and Grill. He put an offer in on the place, but found out that someone else had beaten him to the punch. When the other party's financing fell through, Rich Kenny was able to swoop in and pick up the property for a mere $23,000. The second Peanut location opened soon after that.
In 1997, a developer of a new strip mall in Overland Park, KS came to Kenny and asked him if he'd like to put a Peanut location in his new building at 127th and Metcalf. Kenny immediately said, "No," but the developer came back with an offer he couldn't refuse. The third Peanut location opened later that year. (A fourth location opened in north suburban Gladstone in 2003, but that has since closed up.)
In 1998, Rich and Melinda Kenny began to license out the Peanut name. Two additional locations - one in Lee's Summit, MO and another in Olathe, KS Overland Park (thanx, Renee M.!) became licensed Peanut locations.
In 2005, Rich Kenny and two partners - one the developer who owned the building in which the Overland Park location was housed - opened an upscale "Peanut" venue called "The Cashew" in Kansas City's Crossroads Arts and Entertainment District. The menu featured appetizers, wraps, panini sandwiches and, interestingly, pizza, harkening back to Kenny's days with Minsky's.
Sadly, Rich Kenny passed away in 2007 from pancreatic cancer. Melinda continues to run the Peanut empire today. However, she sold the Overland Park location to three partners a couple years after Rich passed away. The local licensees pay Melinda Kenny a percentage of their monthly revenue for the use of the Peanut name and concept.
But everyone tells me that the original Peanut is the best, both in food and atmosphere. Actually, I tried to get lunch at the Peanut earlier in the summer of 2013, but there was a lot of construction going on in the immediate area and parking along Main and the side streets was at a premium. On a late fall trip to K.C., I decided to give the Peanut another shot after having a meeting with one of my dealers who is located about three minutes away by car. Heavy construction behind the Peanut was still going on, but I was able to find a parking spot on a side street a block to the west of Main.
It had been - shwooo, I don't know - maybe 8 or 9 years since my dear and now deceased friend Jim Mitchell had driven me to the Peanut for a beer one night when I was in Kansas City for business. I immediately liked the kitschy nature of the place with the mismatched bar stools, the old pictures and beer signs on the wall, and the cozy nature of the bar, itself. Plus, the fact that I was sitting in the oldest bar in Kansas City.
Since it was part of the lunch rush and many of the tables were filled with diners, I ended up sitting at the bar, possibly in the same place that I sat my previous visit with Jimmy. The bartender asked me if I would like to have a menu and something to drink. I ordered up a Boulevard Pale Ale in tribute to my late pal Jimi.
Jimi had told me that the Peanut had pretty good burgers on my initial visit and I always sort of kept that in the back of my mind. The menu at the Peanut was not extensive - at least at the Main and 50th location. They had the one burger on the menu, a pork tenderloin sandwich, a tuna melt, and their famous reuben sandwich - something that helped put the place on the map when the Kenny's took over in the early 80's. Interestingly, they also had BLT's on the menu - bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches topped with cheddar cheese, black pepper, red onions and mayo, served on toasted whole wheat bread. For an extra cost, you could get extra bacon, or a fried egg on top. Or, you could go for the TRIPLE BLT - same thing as the single (there's no double) - only much bigger. Quite honestly, I stopped and thought about getting the BLT with extra bacon and an egg. But I had it in my mind that I was going to get a burger on this trip.
And that's exactly what I ordered. I ordered it with pepper jack cheese and bacon - medium. It was a good thing I wasn't in a big hurry because it was over 20 minutes - and ordering a second Boulevard Pale Ale - before my burger was brought out to me. But good things do take time and the burger from the Peanut looked good upon presentation. And it was good at the first bite.
The burger wasn't overly big, but they still stuck a knife in the center of the burger should you want to cut it in half for easier handling. I got some sliced onions on the burger, as well, and dill pickle slices came on the plate along with some crinkle cut fries. The burger was juicy and tender - the taste of it showed that it was cooked on a flat grill, my choice of the best way to cook a burger. The crispy bacon was a nice compliment to the burger and the pepper jack gave it a nice little after buzz in spiciness. Even the bun was good - it wasn't large and chewy, but it held together well with everything that was going on with the burger.
While it probably wasn't the best burger I've had in Kansas City, the one I had at the Peanut was still very good. The burger wasn't cheap - with all the fixings I got on it, it was about $10 bucks in cost with the fries. But, honestly, I thought it was worth it. Actually, just having the chance to be in the oldest bar in Kansas City is worth a couple extra bucks in my mind. I haven't been to the other Peanut locations, but I can't imagine that any of them have the character - and the history - of the original at 50th and Main. And I am going back for one of their BLT's at some point.