When you travel the 83,000 square miles of Kansas, you pass more than 7,350 restaurants, according to the Kansas Restaurant and Hospitality Association. How do you know which ones are good? “We all have hometown appetites,” wrote Clementine Paddleford of Riley County, who introduced regional cooking to America in the early 20th century. “Every other person is a bundle of longing for the simplicities of good taste once enjoyed on the farm or in the hometown he or she left behind.” Small-town restaurants are a matter of pride and can often make the difference in whether a community thrives. They are gathering spots, watering holes, and boosters of local economies. We pick our favorites most often based on loyalty, the historical experience, outstanding food and the chance of encountering local characters, said Marci Penner, director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation, based near Inman. I think one of the main draws is made-from-scratch food. It may be a growing trend in the larger cities featuring farm-to-table cooking, but in the smaller towns, it is not so much trendy but the only way those cooks know how to prepare food. Marci Penner
“I think one of the main draws is made-from-scratch food,” Penner said. “It may be a growing trend in the larger cities featuring farm-to-table cooking, but in the smaller towns it is not so much trendy but the only way those cooks know how to prepare food.”
For instance, there are loyal fried chicken aficionados who periodically journey to Pittsburg to argue which restaurant has the best – Chicken Annie’s or Chicken Mary’s. Others might swear it is at the Wheatland Cafe in Hudson or the Brookville Hotel in Abilene. Oven-fried, pan-fried or deep-fried, each is distinctive.
“There are some places you are not going for the food but the experience, just to say you have done it,” says Patsy Terell, longtime blogger and writer about cuisine in Kansas.
The Hays House in Council Grove still operates in the original building constructed by Seth Hays. The restaurant – the oldest in Kansas – opened in 1857. Terell’s favorites include Beethoven’s #9 in Paola and the Renaissance Cafe in Assaria.
“They are running neck and neck,” Terell said. “I would say go to Assaria for the food. For a lot of small towns, it is sometimes about the service. Small places can’t hire help. Assaria is not a big town, but I’ve never had a bad experience there.”
For a lot of small towns, it is sometimes about the service. Small places can’t hire help. Assaria is not a big town, but I’ve never had a bad experience there. Patsy Terell Some of the restaurants are what we experienced growing up, so we go out of loyalty. For more than nine decades, the Cozy Inn in Salina has been slinging out hamburgers and grilled onions in the same shoe-box-size establishment with the six porcelain bar stools, counter and wood cupboards as it did in 1922. So how do you discover good out-of-the-way restaurants?
“I find out through word of mouth,” Terell said. “I am always reading columns in newspapers where they talk about food. I am always on the road driving around exploring. I will stop in and check out any little place that looks interesting. “If I go by a place that had both expensive cars and jalopies, I know it is good. If you have a cross-section of people, it is the food that is bringing people together.”
Penner’s favorites include the Kettle in Beloit and Marla’s Joy in Concordia.
“Those are places I could eat at every single day,” Penner said. “The Kettle has a biscuit and gravy pot pie. “We have more awesome restaurants in Kansas every day.”
Others may choose a place because it has not only good food but good beer or alcoholic drinks as well. Fly Boy Brewery and Eats in Sylvan Grove, Bourbon and Baker in Manhattan, Willow’s Restaurant and Bar in Seneca, Crooner’s Lounge in Fort Scott, and Gella’s Dining and Lb. Brewing Co. in Hays are good examples. Following is a list of restaurants in Kansas that are worth a try for every Kansan. There are many great restaurants in Wichita and Sedgwick County, but for this list, we tried to find restaurants out in the state that – if you happen to be in the area – are worth trying!