The best classic burgers in KC —we went to spots 50-plus years old

Jess and Jim's Burgers
Photography by Jeremey Theron Kirby

*Photography by Jeremey Theron Kirby

If Hayes Hamburgers & Chili looks small from the outside, wait until you’re squeezing your way to one of the coveted bar stools inside the 20-something-seat diner. The interior is no bigger than a railway car, and there have been few upgrades since it opened in Kansas City’s Northland in 1955. You’ll feel a bit like you’re in a strange time warp: A double cheeseburger will set you back $3.45, and your fellow patrons — leather-clad middle-aged guys on Harleys — will chat with the gruff guy behind the kitchen counter about the ball game while a young couple will feed their pigtailed toddler French fries in a
window booth.

At Hayes, the full menu is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s a short menu: steak and eggs, tenderloin and eggs, hot cakes, biscuits and gravy, hot dogs, steak sandwiches, cheeseburgers, chili and, of course, chili cheeseburgers.

I had the chili cheeseburger. It was my fifth burger of the day, and it’s still one that stands out in a memory strained by the meat sweats.

I was chasing down some cowtown legacy, you see. Kansas City has no shortage of fine burgers to choose from, of course. But I wasn’t looking for the best burger in the city. I wanted my burger with a side of nostalgia. I wanted only the burgers that had stood the test of time and that folks still talked about, decades on. For this assignment, I would only seek out burgers from establishments that had been continually open for 50 years or more. (Town Topic and Winstead’s were in; The Savoy and The Golden Ox were out because they’d closed and reopened with new recipes.) Any time I encountered several options, I ordered a cheeseburger or the house specialty, whichever was
more popular.

In my quest, I sampled 14 burgers over three days. The first day, I had nine. The second day, I had three. The third day, I had two. I had a few more burgers about a week later (my cholesterol levels needed a little recovery period). Could I have distributed these a little more widely? Perhaps. But I wanted to group them all together to ensure I was judging them fairly, one against the others.

It was not easy. Midway through my burger marathon, I became acutely aware of the perspiration collecting behind my knees and in the creases of my elbows. As my burger consumption crossed into double digits, even the elastic of my athleisure pants was beginning to feel the pressure. But my other senses were heightened: I could tell, just by visual appraisal of patty girth and grill char, what kind of beefy delight I was about to encounter, arterial plaque be damned.

Top 5 Historic Burgers

1. Kitty’s Café (1951)

Order: Double Cheeseburger, $5

Everyone talks about the pork tenderloin sandwich at Kitty’s Café, a cinder block shack at 31st Street and Troost Avenue. It’s excellent, of course, and legendary in Kansas City as far as pork tenderloin sandwiches go. But I’ve got to tell you: If you want a true-as-hell diner burger, you can’t do better than the one at Kitty’s. The thin patty is smashed on the grill just long enough to get a crispy sear around the edges before it’s topped with melty American cheese and tucked into a squishy bun. Ask for it with everything — raw onions, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, ketchup and mustard. This is a hallowed combination anywhere you go, but at Kitty’s, the flavors are transcendental. This is the holy grail of burgers. Once you have it, you will compare all others to it. You will dream of it. You will be haunted by it. When you are old and wrinkled and telling your grandchildren about the first time you felt love, this burger is what you will be speaking of.

Kitty’s burgers aren’t big in diameter — they’re more or less palm-sized — so you don’t need to feel too guilty if you decide to order two or three patties. The recipe hasn’t changed much since OG owners Paul and Kitty Kawakami opened the joint 68 years ago, and neither have the prices. (A single cheeseburger will set you back $3.25, a double is $5, and a triple is $6.25.) Charley Soulivong purchased Kitty’s in 1998, and his biggest innovation was adding a shady outdoor seating area. This is especially handy since the cash-only Kitty’s has just a handful of barstools inside, and the wait can get long during peak hours. 810 1/2 E. 31st St., Kansas City, Mo. 816-753-9711. Open 9 am-5 pm Monday-Friday and 10 am-3 pm Saturday.

Kitty's Burgers

2. Hayes Hamburgers & Chili (1955)

Order: Single Chili Cheeseburger, $2.35

The folks at Hayes Hamburgers & Chili know how to keep a secret. The recipe for their chili has been in owner Jim Hayes’ family since 1906, and it’s the same formula his 24-hour diner has been using since it opened in 1955. Hayes, who still owns the diner but has retired from day-to-day operations, has left longtime employee Aaron Sprink in charge. Sprink has been at Hayes for 25 years and has managed it for the last 15. Neither he nor his loyal crew are loose-lipped: Not one of them will tell you what’s in the chili except that it has beef. They won’t tell you where the beef comes from, either — only that it is “ground fresh by one of our longtime customers and delivered seven days a week.”

The chili is important. It’s what earns Hayes a spot in our top five, since, of course, the best way to enjoy one of the spot’s burgers is with a scoop of chili in lieu of toppings and condiments. It’s a rich hickory color, expertly spiced — no beans or funny stuff. It’s the perfect complement to the petite Hayes burger patty, which you can watch being smashed onto the flat top grill on top of a thin layer of onions that caramelize and fuse to the beef, creating a decadent crust. When this chili cheeseburger arrives in front of you, having traveled less than three feet from the kitchen to your seat, it is piping hot and crowd surfing a bed of fragrant onions while a heavy pile of chili oozes onto the plate. The yellow American cheese has only just melted, and the soft bun miraculously holds everything in place as you devour this masterwork in a few short bites. 2502 N.E. Vivion Road, Kansas City, Mo. 816-453-5575. Open 24 hours daily.

Hayes Burgers

3. Jess & Jim’s Steakhouse (1938)

Order: The Steakburger, $11.99 with fries

If you know Jess & Jim’s Steakhouse, you likely don’t think of it as a burger destination. But you should.

Jess & Jim’s opened in 1938. Although the eponymous founders, Jess Kincaid and Jim Wright, are long gone, their legacy continues on thanks to R.C. Van Noy, Wright’s cousin who took over the business in the late ’70s. In 1990, Mike and David Van Noy, R.C.’s sons, succeeded their father. They’re still in charge today.

The steaks are the main selling point at Jess & Jim’s. They come from Sterling Silver Meats in Wichita, and they are hand-cut daily. The trimmings are used for Jess & Jim’s steakburgers: gargantuan, plate-sized beasts that require two hands and an empty stomach. The patty is oh-so-lightly seasoned. The point is for you to enjoy the intense beefiness of your order, prepared according to your preferred temperature and topped with, if you please, grilled mushrooms and grilled red onions. It’s served on a buttered, toasted brioche bun with the requisite lettuce, tomato and pickles on the side. I got a very special kind of joy out of ordering a $12 burger made with the extra bits of my next-table neighbor’s $30 sirloin. You will, too. 517 E. 135th St., Kansas City, Mo. 816-941-9499, Open 11 am-9 pm Sunday-Thursday and 11 am-10 pm Friday-Saturday.

Jess and Jim's Burgers

4. Westport Flea Market (1951)

Order: The Flea Market Burger, $9.49 with fries

Westport Flea Market is still good. In fact, it’s better than you remember.

This was one of the first burgers I had when I moved to Kansas City six years ago. I remember thinking it was decent: big and juicy, and since the condiments and toppings are do-it-yourself via a dressing bar by the order pick-up window, there was no one to judge the ludicrous amount of pickles and ketchup I indulged in. But I didn’t really get the hype behind it, and I put it out of my head.

It wasn’t until this beef marathon that I rediscovered the glory of the Westport Flea burger. It was day three, I was already 11 burgers in, and I still managed to eat an entire half of this hefty beauty. Such was its power. Maybe it’s the beef. It’s from McGonigle’s Market, one of Kansas City’s longest-standing butcher shops, founded in 1951, the same year Westport Flea got its start. The Flea Market Burger is a 10-ounce patty of ground chuck (for those with more conservative appetites, the Mini Market Burger is a 5-and-a-half-ounce patty), and it is precisely seared. The Flea Market Burger is all brute-force beef every single time.

Westport Flea is still cash-only and still very much a dive. And, yes, it still serves one of Kansas City’s best burgers. 817 Westport Road, Kansas City, Mo. 816-931-1986, Open 11 am-midnight daily.

Westport Flea Market

5. Court House Exchange (1899)

Order: The Court House Exchange Burger, $9.99 with fries

I discovered the Court House Exchange thanks to jury duty. As I drove around Independence Square on a lunch break, my eye caught the large white block-letter print on a window: “Serving fine burgers & beer since 1899.”

Burgers were invented around the turn of the century, and if the Court House Exchange’s established date is true, it must have been one of the first joints in the country to serve them. It’s not impossible, by any means: Independence flourished as a trading post town and jumping-off point on the Oregon, Santa Fe and California trails in the first half of the 19th century.

I got the signature Court House Exchange burger. A thick, hand-pounded patty made with beef from Independence’s own L&C Meat Inc., open since 1948, is piled with two slices of bacon, cheddar, lettuce and a ripe tomato. Instead of ketchup and mustard, Court House Exchange gives its namesake burger a generous swath of sweet and spicy barbecue sauce. It was a surprise twist I didn’t know I needed — another condiment I crave with a burger now. But there’s no salt or seasoning on the patties at the Court House Exchange. “You can’t dress up the beef,” the bartender told me. She was right. The Court House Exchange burger wanted for nothing. 113 W. Lexington Ave., Independence, Mo. 816-252-0344, Open 11 am-9 pm Monday-Thursday and 11 am-10 pm Friday-Saturday. Closed Sunday.

Courthouse Exchange Burgers

Categories: Food