On Kansas City’s East Side, a mixed plate of barbecue, blues and booze

Barbecue, Blues and Booze: A Mixed Plate of Delights on Kansas City’s East Side

Back in the 1960s, Ollie Gates, who later became a renowned barbecue magnate, established a happening jazz club in Kansas City’s East Side at 31st Street and Indiana Avenue. The club was named OG’s and served as a popular spot for almost ten years, drawing crowds from the primarily Black neighborhood. It was a trendy place to be seen and be part of the vibrant nightlife scene.

Darcus Gates, who grew up at 41st Street and College Avenue and is now Ollie’s daughter-in-law, fondly remembers OG’s as the hottest spot in town. As a child, she would become thrilled just watching her parents dress up for a night out at the restaurant.

The iconic OG’s establishment has been closed since 1970, and unfortunately, the East Side has been facing disinvestment challenges in the past few decades. The 1968 race riots had a significant impact on the area, and it has struggled to recover ever since.

The East Side seems to lack a decent selection of bars these days. It’s difficult to find a proper watering hole in the area.

Although access to a bar and lounge may seem like a rarity for most, Darcus is fortunate enough to have one at her disposal. Her husband, George Gates, holds the position of chief operating officer at Gates Bar-B-Q, which gives him oversight over the chain’s five restaurants and real estate assets. The bar and lounge are located within the Gates at 1221 Brooklyn, and can be found by venturing through a short hallway to the left of the entrance and into the cavernous space beyond.

After spending three decades performing at nightclubs across the Las Vegas strip, Darcus decided to move back to Kansas City in the late 2000s. It was then that she saw the potential in a space that could be transformed into a thriving hub for live music. As the pandemic hit, Darcus took matters into her own hands and created a makeshift stage by hanging up drapes to block out the sound from the bar. She also added a spotlight and cleared out some room to make it possible for musicians to perform.

Every Friday night, Darcus After Dark takes center stage, bringing back the nostalgic vibes of the original OG’s. This weekly show has been catering to the discerning tastes of the East Side’s mature crowd for the past two years, serving up mouth-watering ribs with a side of soulful rhythm. If you’re looking for a night of good food and great music, Darcus After Dark is the place to be.

According to Darcus, this platform is a perfect opportunity for artists who have immense potential. It provides them with a space to develop their skills and become better performers. He believes that this platform is the ideal place for artists to showcase their talent and grow as entertainers.

Tiff and the Band, a talented group comprising of four members, brought a delightful evening of entertainment on the first Friday of October. Led by the gifted singer Tiffaney Whitt, who works as an assistant principal at Washington High School in Kansas City, Kansas during the day, the band’s performance was a blend of smooth jazz and R&B. Darcus had discovered Tiff and the Band a few years ago during one of their performances at an open mic event held at Parlor, the popular food hall located in Crossroads.

Whitt expressed her fondness for the small and intimate setting of the venue, stating that it allows for a deeper connection with the engaged audience. She feels a sense of freedom performing here that she doesn’t experience in other locations.

The combination of delicious barbecue and soulful jazz music, with three sets starting at 8 p.m., makes for an unforgettable evening. This unique experience pays tribute to the original Gates Ol’ Kentuck Bar-B-Q restaurant located at 19th and Vine.

According to George Gates, his grandfather, who shared the same name as him, used to open up his establishment at almost 2 a.m. during the early years. The reason behind this timing was because the jazz clubs nearby would let out around that time, and that’s when his grandfather would welcome customers.

In the late 1950s, a skilled bricklayer named Ollie played a crucial role in erecting the building located at 1221 Brooklyn. At that time, the lounge was known as The Pit and served as a popular hangout spot for a group of activists and influential power brokers. This group eventually formed the renowned East Side political organization, Freedom Inc. Ollie’s contribution to the construction of this historic building is a testament to his craftsmanship and dedication to his trade.

According to George Gates, politicians and judges would spend their time playing cards and enjoying drinks at the back of the establishment. It was like an exclusive club that was open to the public. However, in 1975, The Pit was transformed into a Gates restaurant with a unique Mexican cantina ambiance.

Despite the passage of time, certain elements of the lounge have endured. The arched brick doorways, Spanish tile, stained glass, and the sombrero-wearing statue of Poncho still remain. The lounge opens daily at 11 a.m. and continues to attract a faithful group of older African American men from the surrounding area, including Quincy, Clyde, Johnny, Jesse, and a man who goes by the nickname Junk Man.

With a glass of wine perched on the bar in front of him, William Burton proudly declared, “I’m a 12th Street Boy. I went to school at 11th and Tracy. I’m also an Air Force veteran. Since 1979, this has been my go-to spot. It’s a neighborhood gem, and there aren’t many bars around here like there used to be.” Burton’s loyalty to the bar and the neighborhood was undeniable, and his pride in being a part of the community was evident in his words.

Big Paul, a retired bus driver, nodded in agreement and said, “There’s no problem here. That’s what I appreciate about it. I’m usually inside during the day, but I also enjoy the Friday night event they’re organizing.”

As the anticipation built up, Darcus stepped up to the microphone to welcome Tiff and the Band on stage. The keyboard player set the tone with a soulful and upbeat melody, and as Tiff’s powerful vocals filled the room, the audience erupted in cheers and applause. People whipped out their phones to capture the moment and the party officially kicked off in full swing.

After a few songs, Darcus made her way down the hall to meet up with George and her friend Rhonda Iverson at a cozy circle booth in the restaurant. She proudly displayed the 2023 regional Emmy she had recently received for her amazing performance alongside Stevie Wonder, CeCe Peniston, and 27 other talented artists who joined forces to raise funds for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Despite her yearning for her singing days in Vegas, Darcus After Dark was currently fulfilling her musical cravings.

During a conversation, Ollie once shared some valuable advice with me. She said, “Darcus, whenever you visit a new place and discover something interesting, find a way to bring it back home and share it with others.” This is precisely how she approaches her work, constantly striving to bring new and exciting ideas to the table.

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