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THE HOUSE THAT SETH BUILT: Council Grove's Hays House is the oldest Restaurant in Kansas

Updated: Mar 28, 2022

Welcoming famished travelers for over 160 years, from the days of the highly-traversed Santa Fe Trail to the present, Hays House in Council Grove Kansas has been serving hearty meals since it was established in 1857.







Gone are the wagon-rutted dirt roads when arriving in the picturesque all-Americana small town of Council Grove. Set in the heart of Kansas’ Flint Hills, this community of 2,200, was a bustling stop on the Santa Fe Trail. Council Grove was the last chance for trail goers to stock up on supplies, rest, and prepare for the long journey ahead of them on their way west to New Mexico.

Did you know? Kansas is home to roughly two-thirds of the Santa Fe Trail. Notable towns along the trail include Kansas City, Burlingame, Council Grove, Larned, Dodge City, Garden City, and Elkhart to name a few.

Today, as Kansas highway 56 (or K-177) transitions into Main St., you’ll drive by remnants of Council Grove’s frontier days. Historic native limestone and ornate scarlet red-brick buildings line the downtown. Amongst them is a simple two-story, flat-roof structure. Large lettering across the top spell out "Hays House 1857." You've arrived at the oldest restaurant in Kansas.


historic information signage about Hays House
The beginning of Hays House in Council Grove

The current building stands on what was Seth Hays’ original log cabin, a place to trade goods with the indigenous Kanza people. In 1857, Hays constructed a larger structure used as a tavern, restaurant, hotel, trading post, courthouse, post office, and was where the first newspaper of Council Grove was published. On Sundays, church services were held in the stone basement. There are rumors legendary figures Jesse James and George Custer were once patrons of Hays House.

Seth Hays, founder of Council Grove and the Hay House, was also the great-grandson of Daniel Boone and cousin to Kit Carson.

Over the last century and a half, Hays House has changed ownership several times and was renamed Neosho House and Hays Tavern, before returning to its original moniker. It’s also survived multiple fires. The first was in the fall of 1886 which devastated the downtown, thanks to the townspeople they saved the building from destruction.

In the December of 2011, fire struck again - this time in the kitchen. Once again, the community came together. Taking it upon themselves to ensure Hays House was restored - with many of its elements - reopened, and able to be enjoyed for decades to come.


Often proclaimed to be the oldest, continuously-operating restaurant west of the Mississippi, this title may be up for debate. Researching for this post, I came across two other restaurants operating well before 1857. First, ​​J. Huston Tavern in Arrow Rock, Missouri - which opened in 1837. On its website, it also claims to be the oldest, continuously-serving restaurant west of the Mississippi. The second is San Francisco’s Tadich Grill, established in 1849.

Now, I’m not trying to cause any drama. There may be other factors I’m not aware of when it comes to claiming such titles. It’s important to me though that I share the information I find. No matter what, this doesn't detract from Hays House's rich history and its holding on the title of being Kansas’ oldest restaurant.


Walking through the half a century old (or older) wood and glass swing doors into the main dining room, guests are greeted by a hostess station. Rustic ranch gear - ropes, spurs, and cowboy hats - are tacked up on wooded posts. Framed artifacts and photographs adorn the walls. Exposed hand-hewn beams, vintage lanterns, and gleaming hardwood floors all add to the ambiance. Western decor can easily be taken too far, but at Hays House, it is just right.

In the mid-70s, then owners Helen and Charles Judd oversaw a major renovation of the restaurant. During the remodeling, the cellar was reopened for dining. The first floor fireplace, a focal point in the main dining room, was created using discarded stones from the cellar.