Anyone who has driven through America’s heartland, specifically Kansas along I-70, knows that staring out at the long, flat stretch of road with nothing but prairie and farmland to look at can be somewhat monotonous. But lurking just beyond the miles of the highway is a world of culinary diversity. Here are five cities that will more than fit the bill for good eats.
Located about halfway between Denver and Kansas City, WaKeeney is known as the Christmas City of the High Plains. For 67 years, yuletide enthusiasts have flocked to the town, which is transformed into something out of a Currier and Ives print each November when the North Pole and Santa come to the town center.
For lunch, the Brazen Bull is known for its steaks and unique sandwiches. Its cheesesteak has tender strips of Angus beef with sautéed onions and peppers and a creamy Swiss sauce for $10.95.
If you have a sweet tooth and a touch of nostalgia, then mosey over to Gibson’s Health Mart Pharmacy’s old-fashioned soda fountain. Partake in a Green River, vanilla cream Coke, or ice cream chocolate soda, all at small-town prices.
A winery is probably not something you would expect to find in America’s heartland, but the weather is ideal for growing grapes. Located about five miles off of I-70, Shiloh Vineyard and Winery is an oasis on the prairie owned by a couple who produce about 7,000 gallons each year. They offer tastings of their first wines, dry reds and whites, and dessert wines. (But do call ahead.) A bottle of their most expensive is around $24.
Your dinner call will be at the Western Kansas Saloon and Grill where owners Kenny and Lien Quan use top-quality ingredients, like Texas beef, and serve hungry diners steaks, seafood, and pasta. One customer said that their fettuccini Alfredo was the best he’d ever had. For dessert, try the rich crème brûlée. Ask about the plugged-up hole in the floor from the Prohibition Era.
Jump back on I-70 and head east for about 30 minutes to your next exit along the culinary highway. Home to Fort Hays, this city has seen African-American buffalo soldiers, Gen. George A. Custer, and Buffalo Bill Cody pass through.
Start your day at the Golden Griddle, known for excellent coffee and pancakes. Many Volga Germans settled in this area, and at Augustine’s Bakery, you can experience authentic tastes from the old country. Chad and Holly Augustine bake their confections from scratch, such as their very popular Schwartzbeeren coffeecake.
Gella’s Diner and Lb. Brewing Co. is the “in spot” for lunch. They have won many awards for their beers, including the noteworthy oatmeal stout. The menu includes salads and burgers, but what really distinguishes Gella’s are the soups. Hands down, the one you should try is the dill pickle with potatoes, dill, and carrots ($4.95).
For homemade lemonade, stop by Professor’s Classic Sandwich Shop. It has amazing flavorful lemonade made with its own raw honey.
Al’s Chickenette is one of those iconic heartland roadside stands with a big red chicken on the side of the building that makes you have to stop. Al’s is the oldest restaurant in Hays, and since 1949, they have been making Al’s grandmother’s fried chicken recipe. This is one place that should really give you something to cluck about.
Nicknamed the Little Apple, Manhattan will be your next stop along the interstate. This is a college town and home to Kansas State University and the Wildcats. On game day, the excitement is palpable, and everything radiates purple Wildcat pride.
So, how’s the food in Manhattan? Fortunately, you don’t have to travel all the way to the Big Apple to find a great meal. Start by visiting Varsity Donuts for The Oscar, topped with peanuts, Oreo, Heath Bar, and potato chip crumbles, sea salt, and a drizzle of chocolate.
Next, visit Bourbon and Baker, whose menu is influenced by the comfort and soul of many cuisines. Its best small plates include the chicken and waffle with maple-pecan butter ($9) and an elevated fried baloney slider with Dijon and white cheddar cheese ($8).
Of course, what would Kansas be without barbecue? The Cox Bros. have been cooking their version of championship, award-winning barbecue for the hungry masses for many years. It has a variety of platters of hickory-smoked meats and a sauce to accommodate every main barbecue region.
Afterward, head to Call Hall, home to the KSU Dairy Bar. The ice cream comes from cows on-site, and one of its best sellers is the blueberry Purple Pride. Its creamy confections are so fresh that it might be the closest to cow to cone that you can get.
The nearby Liquid Art Winery and Estate was started by a young couple who converted 10,000 rough acres into a Napa-inspired vineyard. Vineyards were actually in abundance in Kansas before Prohibition and are still slowly returning. Delightful wines such as Aronia ($5.56/glass) are available in their tasting room and/or to take home.
For supper, the preferred term in these parts, the Wine Dive is a good choice. Start with lamb sliders ($11) and then the Cubano sandwich ($9) paired with any number of fine wines.
While the name Leavenworth conjures up the large federal prison, you hopefully won’t be in town visiting that facility. Instead, explore nearby Fort Leavenworth’s museums and monuments. Some of the most notable are the large, visually stunning buffalo soldier sculpture and fountain and fascinating historical artifacts at the Richard Allen Cultural Center Museum.
The prison, also known as The Big House, sits as a visual backdrop for your first meal here. Calling itself the Little Steak House Across from the Big House, the Metropolitan Steak House is known for its large portions and freshly made burgers, steaks, and sandwiches. Its Hico burger has a half-pound of Angus beef topped with ham, cheddar cheese, and barbecue sauce ($8.99).
All Slabbed Up pretty much describes this homey little restaurant serving up smoked brisket, pork, and ribs. The meat is tender and flavorful, and you can slather it up with one of its tangy barbecue sauces.
Between meals, you can see other interesting sights like the Carroll Mansion and C.W. Parker Carousel Museum. Both are highly rated, and the latter restored a 100-year-old carousel for guests to ride.
For dinner, go international at Luigi’s Italian Cuisine. While you are waiting for your spaghetti Bolognese or lasagna (both $9.90), feast on soft, garlicky rolls and finish the meal off with the house-made tiramisu.
The third largest city in the state, Kansas City is home to NASCAR racing at the modern Kansas Speedway and some of the world’s best barbecue.
Slap’s BBQ is a culinary patch of joy nestled in the Strawberry Hill neighborhood. A brothers’ barbecue competition ended up as a brick-and-mortar restaurant, featuring their best recipes for mouth-watering smoked meats. Their pork ribs fall off the bone, and their beans are sweet and tangy.
For a mid-afternoon respite, head to the nearby town of Bonner Springs to Third Space Coffee. The name reflects the idea that everyone needs a place outside of work and home to relax and have a great cup of coffee. The décor is clean, modern, and inviting, and you can enjoy your coffee or latte and homemade bakery items.
After researching the best way to make custard for eight years, Jim Sheridan opened his own storefront in Kansas City. Using only the freshest ingredients, he creates his frozen custard sensations that have people lining up at all hours of the day and evening. You may just fall in love with ice cream’s possible successor.
At Original Juan Specialty Foods, you’ll sample some of the best of their 150 products: regional dips, marinades, sauces, salsas, and snacks.
Once you decide to exit the Interstate, a whole world of sights, adventures, and tastes await. These five cities will definitely treat you to the best of what the heartland of America offers, along with a heaping helping of down-home hospitality.
Where to Stay
WaKeeney — Best Western Plus WaKeeney Inn & Suites
Hays — Holiday Inn Express
Manhattan — Holiday Inn at The Campus
Leavenworth — Fairfield Inn
Kansas City — Chateau Avalon Hotel and Spa— They have 61 themed rooms and excellent cinnamon rolls.
Need more road trip inspiration? Check out our 101 ideas for a weekend getaway!