The Quaff became my favorite neighborhood bar in the world 40 years ago for one reason — Joe Bonino, its owner.
Joe’s heart is huge and he stole mine.
Joe has walked women safely to their cars, loaned people money and worked relentlessly to make the average Joe feel at home in his bar.
Die-hard quaffers wouldn’t drink anywhere else because they are treated like family by family.
Joe and his sons allow celebs to sneak into the Quaff Bar & Grill under the radar and they treat them like Quaffers, not idols. That’s probably why George Brett, Puff Paddy, Rod Stewart and Jewel have bellied up to the Quaff and thrown back a few cold ones with neighborhood regulars.
This third-generation, family-owned bar once served Mad Dog on its menu when Antonio Bonino opened it in 1946. Today Coors Light is the crowd favorite. The Quaff sells more Coors Light than any other bar or restaurant in the Kansas City metro, except for Royals Stadium.
Keep in mind Royals Stadium holds 38,000 people compared to the Quaff’s 450-person capacity. The volume of beer sold shows just how much Quaffers (aka regulars) love their neighborhood bar.
Quaffers who’d rather take a bullet than drink anywhere else.
Quaff regulars like a woman named Benita have quaffed (drank vigorously) for more than 40 years. Benita loves to watch baseball in the third stool from the door. The bartenders make sure she gets to her car safely, which is above and beyond what her second-favorite bar, the Fox and Hound English Pub, delivers.
Other regulars include four feisty former FBI agents who have met at the Quaff every Monday for beers and burgers for three decades. And more brides and grooms have embarrassed themselves at the Quaff the night before the big day than Joe cares to count.
Fortunately, for those who over imbibe, many a picture are taken, but none are posted on the walls because the Quaff doesn’t believe in wall-of-fame or wall-of-shame. The only pictures posted above the cash registers are G-rated ones of the kids and grandkids of Quaffers.
If The Original Floors Could Talk
Within the Quaff’s four walls everything remains circa 1940.
The bartenders not only know your name, they know your drink, divorce details, favorite sports team and when to cut you off the hooch.
Regulars park themselves in button-back booths in the original section of the bar; pool tables and more seating in the second section, and yet more tables, an ATM and kitchen pick-up window in the third section.
Other than a lot of scratches, stains and wear, the bar remains pretty much the same as when Antonio started it, but now Joe’s kids are groomed and ready for the nearing change of regime. Anthony, 46, runs the bar side, and does the public relations and social media. Phillip, 43, manages the kitchen.
Today the three Bonino’s make Tony Soprano look lazy, collectively clocking 150 hours a week. Joe, Anthony and Phillip know 80 percent of their customers by name and continue to take pride in the service they provide the Quality Hill neighborhood. By staying true to the neighborhood bar his father built, Joe remains king of Quality Hill in the bar and grill business.
“When I started running The Quaff the average apartment rent in Kansas City was $12 a month and our biggest customer base was made up of pensioners and social security people,” says Joe Bonino.
In the mid-70s Quality Hill neighborhood had hit the skidders. Most of the residents had moved south after many of the old Quality Hill mansions mysteriously burned. Then because of the historical importance of Kansas City’s oldest neighborhood, the big dogs (the Hall Family Foundation, DST, and the Kauffman Foundation), bought the land and hired McCormack Baron Salazar to redevelop the neighborhood.
“I saw my complete customer base bulldozed away and then in a matter of five years replaced with yuppies and hipsters,” says Joe Bonino.
The redevelopment took downtown from 3,000 residents in 2002 to around 20,000 today. Quality Hill’s makeover has been noted as one of the most successful urban redevelopments in the nation.
Cue the Evil Franchised Neighborhood Bar
Then Joe’s resilience was tested again in 1999 when Tanner’s came onto the scene and pulled up a chair right next door to The Quaff. Many feared the franchise would squash The Quaff.
The reverse came true. Tanners couldn’t compete with the Bonino family’s blood, sweat and tears. Tanner’s closed after a decade. Tanner’s did an OK lunch business, but couldn’t compete with The Quaffs beer and food business at night.
“While Tanners was a ghost town at night, the seats at the Quaff had warm butts in them,” says Gary Witt. “I don’t think the Quaff lost one customer to Tanners and I’ve been coming for over 30 years to the Quaff because it feels like Cheers.”
The irony was that Tanner’s deemed itself a sports bar, but the Quaff did sports better. Any die-hard Royals, Chiefs or Northwest Missouri State fan would rather see a game at the Quaff where women sometimes sport provocative sports attire that show a little T&A for the home team.
At the Quaff fans are encouraged to cheer ferociously for their teams broadcast on one of the 30 plasma screens. The Quaff delivers on all the sports packages – NFL MLB, NHL, SEC, and BIG XII.
The Quaff Lights Up the Neighborhood
Unlike the obscure, hard-to-find dives sprinkled throughout Kansas City like Chez Charlie, you can’t miss The Quaff, which is marked by 30 neon beer signs in the front windows of its two-story brick building that was built in 1840. Five red umbrellas shade patrons who want to smoke or hang out outside the 7,500 square feet bar when Kansas City weather cooperates.
Triple the size of when it opened in 1946, the bar has grown from 2,500 square feet to 7,500. Each expansion marks the Quaff’s legacy and ability to survive anything the laws, competition, or economy throws its way.
The redevelopment of the Quality Hill in the mid-70s, the smoking ban of the 90s, and the great recession of 2009.
To boost business after the 1997 indoor smoking ban, the Quaff began serving free popcorn in metal baskets that doubled as musical instruments that were banged against booth tops when the entire bar sang happy birthday to a patron.
While the world is freaky fast, the Quaff is a great place to nurse a cold one nice and slow. It’s a step back in time and proof that, done right, a neighborhood bar is the best cure for what ails you.
Jamie Quirk, George Brett, Puff Daddy, Rod Stewart, Jewel, Kris Ketz, Michael Mahoney
Best of Kansas City (Pitch 2018)
Kansas City Small Business Excellence Award (2018)
Best Dive Bar (Pitch 2012)
Late Night/After Hours (USA Today Best 10)
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