Best known as the home of the University of Kansas, Lawrence is a town of about 80,000 (100,000-plus with students) that boasts an embarrassment of restaurant riches for a town its size. From chef-driven, dynamic restaurants to cheap-ass pizza, it can be tough to decide where to eat. Throw in an old-school downtown that is the city’s jewel, and visitors can be forgiven for overlooking true diamonds in the rough.
Like Gran-Daddy’s Que, 1910 Haskell Ave. Formerly located in a seedy strip mall next to a strip club, Gran-Daddy’s relocated to a slightly less seedy strip mall next to a liquor store. But less-than-fancy digs usually mean great barbecue, and Gran-Daddy’s is the best I’ve had in the area — a bold statement, since Lawrence is about 45 minutes from downtown Kansas City and its vibrant, legendary barbecue scene. But it’s true. Gran-Daddy’s ribs are so rich, and even creamy, they’re decadent. Yet the meat does not entirely fall off the bone — there’s just enough chew to keep your mouth busy. Thanks to these perfectly smoked ribs and the slightly sweet, peppery sauce, Gran-Daddy’s is a legend in the making. The menu has about five sandwiches, ribs, and a few sides, and no, you don’t need anything else. His pork is my favorite sandwich, although some swear by “Da Bomb,” chopped end tips in special sauce on a bun. Gran-Daddy will be around if he’s not out back tending his smoker. Say hello and talk basketball — he’s a former coach.
La Parrilla, in downtown Lawrence at 814 Massachusetts St., is a Central / South American restaurant with an eclectic menu that is freshly made and reliably excellent. If the special is seafood fajitas, it’s your lucky day, because the mix of fish, scallops, and shrimp with homemade tortillas, beans, and rice is around eight bucks. On this trip, though, the special was an octopus rice bowl, so I opted for the $8.50 salmon fajitas. Delicately seasoned, firm salmon chunks and barely crispy onions and peppers come out sizzling, and there’s enough to jam-pack your three tortillas. With rice and beans, you’ll get plenty full but not feel overloaded. La Parrilla’s salsa always tastes like it was just made. It’s a little bit sweet and not at all spicy. Chicken enchiladas are typically a yawn, but La Parrilla’s are never greasy, not too cheesy, and stuffed with ample, well-seasoned white meat. Their chimichangas are also terrific — both mushroom and chicken. Kansas City’s Boulevard Pale Ale is on tap; grab one with your meal and for around 10 bucks you’re a happy camper.
Speaking of beer, most Lawrencians swear by Free State Brewing Co., 636 Massachusetts St. Opening in 1989 as the first legal brewery in Kansas in 100 years, Free State has been a local legend ever since. Its patio is always packed, the dining room always has at least a short wait, and the building, a renovated trolley station, is a historic gem. Yet I have never quite understood the draw. There are always about eight beers on tap; all are decent but not noteworthy. Free State’s food is often locally sourced and adequate, but isn’t thrilling. The chicken, pepperoni, and cheese sandwich on an oversized pretzel roll, the daily special, was good, but not as good as a daily special should be. Chili con queso was the highlight — a huge bowl of non-Velveeta for $6 was more than enough an appetizer for four — and the basil ciabatta sandwich was refreshing. Locals will point you here, but if you’re from the Twin Cities and used to drinking our embarrassment of craft-brewed riches, don’t expect nirvana. Though if you’re in the mood for some basic bar food, a cool setting, decent local beer, and reasonable prices (meals around $6-18, beers about $3-$4), Free State is worth a try.
Downtown Lawrence is to coffee shops what downtown La Crosse, WI, is to bars. They’re everywhere. Who drinks all this coffee? Sift through the madness at Java Break, 17 E 7th St. Open 24 / 7 / 365, their coffee-drink menu is exhaustive and the Cafe Lawrence roast is the best regular joe in town. Java Break also serves a bizarre variety of food. New is a cereal bar, where you can order some Kix topped with house-made chocolate syrup and watch Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on a continuous TV loop.
Not to be outdone in the make-your-own category, Java Break added a cupcake case, where you can pick your flavor of cake and frosting, then top with whatever sprinkly crap you want. They also serve biscuits and gravy for $3.50, which is an ample breakfast. Create-your-own paninis are nothing to scream about, but where else can you get decent food at 4 am while sitting on a 30-year-old couch and watching old Pink Panther cartoons?
At seven hours by car, Lawrence is just close enough for a long weekend. Go for the college-town atmosphere, a huge live music scene (it’s sometimes called a mini-Austin), a wander-worthy downtown, and restaurants galore.