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.
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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.
HAYS HOUSE HISTORY
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.
OLDEST RESTAURANT WEST OF THE MISSISSIPPI?
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.
FLINT HILLS GATHERING PLACE
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.
Beyond the main dining room, there are smaller dining spaces and group areas on all three floors. There are also bars located on each floor, including the original 1800s tavern bar in the cellar. Outdoor sitting, next to the sidewalk in front, is available.
Once seated, I perused the menu - created by Hay House’s executive chef Randall Dickson. I was immediately happy about two things - first, it was not multiple pages long, just a simple front and back (after watching an embarrassing amount of restaurant-rehab TV shows - like Robert Irvine’s Restaurant Impossible - I’ve come away with the belief shorter menus are better.). Second happy note, Hay House sources their steaks (beef and bison) from local Flint Hills ranchers.
Like any good Midwesterner, I grew up on a steady diet of meat, potatoes, and some green vegetable, usually green beans or broccoli. While over the years, my culinary horizons have expanded - this kind of food takes me right back to the family dinner table. After debating between the chicken al la mare, sautéed chicken breast topped with a seafood mornay sauce and served with sweet potato, or the Clover Cliff chicken fried steak, Kansas bison breaded, smothered in our Santa Fe style gravy. In the end, I went with Clover Cliff chicken fried steak, with mashed potatoes and a side house salad.
The house salad was served quickly, a deliciously, cool iceberg lettuce mix, with slices of cucumber, grape tomatoes, red onion, cheese, and croutons. Once done with the salad, the chicken fried steak soon followed. The portion size was GENEROUS (yes, all caps are required). The steak covered most of the plate. At first, I couldn’t see the mashed potatoes until I noticed them peeking out from under the steak. All smothered with Hay House’s Santa Fe-style gravy.
Hand-breaded, the steak is fried until golden brown and crunchy. Roughly 3/4 of an inch thick, the bison meat was packed with flavor - which is very similar to beef, but leaner. While lean, it was not dry or tough. My favorite was the Santa Fe gravy. Creamy but not heavy. For how robust the steak was, I felt the gravy was delicate in flavor. A melding of sweet corn, green peppers, onion, and garlic. The mashed potatoes were pretty standard, though a little dry.
Normally, I would consider dessert, but following my meal I was heading out for a hike at the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve and wasn't sure if a slice of pie would be wise. Hays House has been known for its strawberry pie. They also dish up cobblers, cakes, and ice cream sandwiches. So, be sure to leave room for dessert.
Finally, the hostess and serving staff were helpful, attentive, and friendly. When my server noticed I was taking pictures, she encouraged me to explore both the cellar and upstairs.
For over 165 years, it's been a gathering place for locals and travelers alike. It’s the cornerstone of Council Grove. If only these walls could talk. While it's transformed and adapted through the decades, I think Seth Hays would be proud the establishment he started still stands today. I highly recommend a visit to the Hays House Restaurant and Tavern.
Type of cuisine: American Location: 112 West Main Council Grove, Kansas 66846
Days & Hours: Mon - Closed, Tues-Thur - 11 AM - 8 PM, Fri & Sat 11 AM - 9 PM, Sun - 11 AM - 3 PM.
Parking: Street parking in front of the restaurant
Owner(s): Frankie & Shey-Anne Greco
Executive Chef: Randall Dickson
Dining Style: Casual
Prices: $$ (average dish cost is $15)
Most Expensive Entree: 18 oz prime rib, only served on Fridays and Saturdays. For $39.95, you’ll receive a Kansas ribeye roasted, served with au jus and horsey sauce, a side salad and your choice of side.
Least Expensive Entree: It’s a tie, the house burger or pork tenderloin sandwich, both come with a side of fries. Either can be enjoyed for $9.95.