When I think of watering holes, there are really three kinds—the dive bar, the apothecary, and the pub. The dive bar is easily recognizable—cheap drinks, maybe some salty snacks to whet the appetite for more cheap drinks, and atmosphere that is largely provided by its clientele.
The apothecary could easily be called a speakeasy as well, as speakeasies are now defined (not by legality but by the willingness to wear a vest and make your own ingredients). These tend to be swanky lounges, sleek and dark, with the only food options as small plates, which are only moderately larger than the garnishes on their artisan cocktails.
Then there’s the pub. The pub is the hangout, the go-to, the place where the dress code, if there is one, is lax, and you know that you can always get your regular libation. There’s food—good food—the kind that satisfies and makes you linger a little longer for one drink more.
What’s hard to find is the perfect mix of all three. A place that has atmosphere, creative mixology and enough sustenance to keep you around past happy hour can be hard to come by. With the introduction of a newly expanded menu, Julep Cocktail Club is doing its best to hit all the marks.
Julep is now entering its third year in its corner location at 4141 Pennsylvania Avenue in the heart of Westport. Owners Beau Williams and Keely Edgington Williams have been fixtures in the bar and restaurant scene for years, and when it came time for them to open their own place, they focused on classics—whiskey, whiskey and more whiskey.
But with experience comes growth, and they’re hoping to become the destination for dinner as well. The room is sleek and designed for evening enjoyment. The gray-walled shotgun bar has comfortable booths along one wall, several four tops and a semi-private alcove for larger parties. Chandeliers define the bar, illuminating the library of spirits from which the bartenders ply their trade. While the first thing you may see is booze, the dinner menu has certainly stepped up its game, too.
Speaking with general manager Rodman Cruise, it’s clear that demand is there for a more robust dinner offering. Although the kitchen lacks what some may think of as the necessities for a full kitchen (such as a grill or sauté station), executive chef Brent Grunnels uses alternative methods, such as sous vide machines and induction burners, to make nearly anything possible.
You can’t have a name like Julep and ignore the connotations that go with it, and Grunnels leans into the theme. Their menu has a distinct “low country” feel with items like deviled eggs, crab dip and gumbo to soothe a comfort food hankering.
Small plates still rule the menu, but portion sizes are more than amenable to sharing. Six deviled egg halves are stuffed with a creamy filling spiced with Old Bay seasoning and garnished with a sliver of pickled okra or crispy bacon. The rich, savory dish definitely starts things off on the right foot.
For something a little heartier, try the whipped goat cheese topped with seasonal jelly. On my first visit, the featured jelly was a Kansas City Canning Company 7-pepper jelly. Spread over grilled toast farmer’s bread, the cool creamy goat cheese was the perfect counterpoint to the sweet and slightly spicy pepper jelly. It’s an elevated version of something that you could make at home but don’t. Extra points are added for the charming glassware that reminds me of my Southern grandmother’s glass collection.
The low-country crab dip is a bit more coastal without pulling out the claw crackers. A heaping bowl of crab salad is served with lavosh and grilled bread. Topped with lump crabmeat and celery greens, this is not your normal crab dip. Hints of lemon perk up each bite, so what is usually a heavy, mayonnaise-dominated dish becomes light and, dare I say, refreshing.
For those looking for more pub-friendly fare, truffle fries, popcorn, mussels and a meat and cheese board are also available.
Three classically inspired Southern salads on the menu include a wedge with blue cheese, Burger’s bacon and buttermilk dressing; the rice and pea, with Burger’s Country ham, aioli and mint; and my favorite—the duck confit.
The duck was moist, but not greasy, and piled high with pickled shallot, shaved fennel and tomatoes on a bed of spring greens and friseé. Dressed lightly in a cherry vinaigrette, it’s the perfect portion for a light starter.
But salads and small plates are no match for several of Julep’s creative adult concoctions. For that, you need carbs and protein, the stuff dinners are made of. While the menu is small, there are some definite stars.
The baked mac and cheese is a creamy, rich dish complete with breadcrumbs, parsley and a sprinkling of smoked salt. If you’re an omnivore, it’s even better with the optional prosciutto on top. With or without, it’s a hearty dish made for soaking up your accompanying cocktail.
The sausage gumbo imparts a bit of low-country flavor. While this version, made with andouille, Burger’s Bacon, okra and with a scoop of rice in the middle, isn’t Louisiana spicy, it does start with a good basic roux. Although I didn’t ask for any, I’m sure someone in the kitchen has some Tabasco or Crystal hot sauce to punch up the heat level. Add the optional shrimp. They are large, perfectly cooked and the ideal finish to a sizable bowl of gumbo.
The standout item on the dinner menu, though, is the pork chop. Kansas City is a town that loves its pork, and this one vies for a position among the best served in the city. In lieu of a grill, the Duroc pork chop is prepared sous vide and then finished over the induction burner to impart a nice sear to create one of the most tender and juicy cuts of meat I’ve experienced. It’s accompanied with mashed purple Peruvian potatoes, a warm apple and onion salad and finished with a Boulevard Pale Ale pan sauce and served on a beautifully composed plate.
For many, another cocktail would suffice for dessert, but if you’re still feeling peckish, there are two desserts on the menu. The ever-popular Jude’s Rum Cake features pecans, a dusting of sugar and mint—it’s really a manifestation of the classic julep. The seasonal ice cream sundae—this time a rich goat cheese ice cream swirled and topped with pistachios and Italian cherries—was a splendid way to end the meal on a just-sweet-enough note.
Cruise says that they’ll be changing the menu to reflect the season and what’s available from their local producers but some things will remain. The pork chop is one of them. (Hallelujah!) But as the cocktail menu changes, so will the food, introducing more comforting favorites from here and from down South.
Speaking of cocktails, their current cocktail program has spring fever. Although there will always be some whiskey-based favorites like the Monarch, featuring Rittenhouse Rye, Luxardo Maraschino, Cocchi Vermouth di Torino and Olive Heights Braeburn Belle Bitters, head bartenders Dominic Petrucci and Justin Richardson are expanding their repertoire by incorporating lighter spirits, as well.
There has always been a dedication to craft at Julep with a full lineup of house-infused spirits, homemade syrups and daily custom garnishes, but the new menu truly steps up. Gin, mescal, rum and vodka dominate, although bourbon is featured in one drink.
The standout, though, has to be the Everything is Real. Brought to the table, the coupe glass brimming with fresh, turmeric root-infused Monopolowa Gin, coconut cream, lemon and star anise resembles something that might be hanging on the wall at the Kemper. The pale golden concoction looks like curry but tastes like a light, spicy and herbal paradise to be sipped by the pool in Agra. With a line of freshly grated star anise scoring one side, punctuated by a whole star anise as well, it’s a clever presentation.
Of course, for the purists whiskey flights are available, and there’s a full menu of different versions of the namesake drink—the Julep—as well. Served in proper julep cups, all one needs is a new hat and a horse to bet on.
Julep has a fantastic happy hour, with 25 percent off of all food, whiskey, and wine as well as specials on individual drinks. Of course now I know that six o’clock is no reason to head home. Why not stay for dinner?
Julep is located at 4141 Pennsylvania Avenue, Suite 104. Look for the “Whiskey” sign out front. Hours are Monday through Saturday 3 p.m. until 1:30 a.m. and Sunday 5 p.m until midnight. See their full menu at julepkc.com.