I stood in front of the door, hoping it was the right one. The rest of Main Street was empty at this time of night, except for the cars and buses rushing by.
Nothing gave any indication that we were in the right place, except the neon liquor signs glowing in the second-floor windows. My friend Mary looked uneasy, but I was committed.
Whenever I hear about something different to do in Kansas City, I take it as a challenge to go and try. I had heard talk about Harling’s, 3941 Main St., and the jazz music on Tuesday nights, and now here I was. Kansas City is a jazz town, after all. I just need to venture off the beaten path sometimes to remember that.
We walked up the stairs to an empty bar, and Mary’s face looked even more skeptical than before. Somehow she always gets dragged into my adventures. Now that she lives in New York for school, our “lady dates” have been limited to her visits to town. Even I had to admit that this didn’t look promising, but there was no turning back now.
“Trust me,” I said as we sat at the bar, “I have a feeling this will be amazing.”
The bar was no frills in every sense. Weathered tables and chairs sat empty, along with deserted dart boards and pool tables. It felt like we were there on a Sunday morning rather than a Tuesday night, and it was obvious we were uncomfortably early. The bartender confirmed that the band would start in 15 minutes or so. You could see the musicians setting up chairs and music stands in the back of the room.
The hard alcohol selection was limited, nothing like the infinite rows of bottles typically found at bars. I ordered the cheapest Jameson I’ve seen since college. It appeared there was nothing that cost more than $5, and they take only cash.
The crowd started to fill in shortly after we arrived. Most of the seating was around large communal tables, and groups mixed and shared the space. A table of men gathered and looked like weekly regulars on a friend date. A few couples showed up and stuck to the corners. Brave veterans took the couch up front, right in front of where the band was setting up. We kept our perch on the bar stools at the back.
And then the sound of horns took over the room. I admittedly know nothing about jazz, but the sound was so overwhelming that the crowd went silent and turned to watch the New Jazz Order, a big band that draws from a fluid membership of local musicians.
Nearly every Tuesday night (9 to midnight), they jam and try out new and old compositions. There’s no cover. The feeling is very informal and in that moment the atmosphere made sense — it was all about the music.
Whenever I mention Harling’s to someone who has been, there is an instant bond. I use it as my own personal litmus test. If you’ve been and loved it, chances are we’ll get along quite nicely. It’s the type of place that doesn’t sound appealing until you’re actually there. It’s the bar that locals remember fondly — even if they’re a little surprised that it’s still open.
The music and the drinks kept going, and Harling’s became so packed that all the seats were taken. A few couples danced around the small space between the couch and the band. Light conversations started between individuals, but the music was too loud and too mesmerizing to talk much. Mary and I agreed that this might be the coolest thing we’d found in quite awhile.
“Seriously, the best dates I’ve ever been on have been with you,” Mary said.
“I think you need to aim higher in 2013,” I said, smiling as the band struck up the next song.
Andrea Olsen is a weekly contributing columnist who writes about her adventures in Kansas City. She’s never met a dive bar she didn’t love, and you can usually find her on the dance floor. And her drink is a whiskey neat, if you’re buying. Follow along on Twitter and Instagram: andrealolsen