Chow Town

Hayes Hamburger & Chili: 7 things I learned on my first trip to the Northland diner

Six of KC's best diner-style burgers

The Star's Sarah Gish shares six of her favorite KC diner and drive-in burgers in honor of National Cheeseburger Day on September 18. All are under $6.
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The Star's Sarah Gish shares six of her favorite KC diner and drive-in burgers in honor of National Cheeseburger Day on September 18. All are under $6.

This year, I made it my mission to try Northland restaurants with cult followings.

I went to LC’s Hamburgers for salty shoestring fries, Longboards Wraps & Bowls for grilled burrito-style wraps and In-a-Tub for fried tacos topped with powdered cheese.

When several readers emailed or called to suggest Hayes Hamburger & Chili, I knew I had to add it to my list.

“If you’re ever looking for a hidden gem I can’t recommend it enough,” wrote reader Dave Ledden. “The burgers are amazing, plus it’s like eating in the 1920s.”

Hayes actually dates back to 1955. The cozy burger joint at 2502 N.E. Vivion Road is famous for — what else? — classic chili and small hamburgers smashed flat with onions on a grill and sizzled until they’re crisp and lacy around the edges. Here are my first impressions:

1. This place is tiny. I counted around 20 seats, and most of them are stools at the kitchen. If you prefer a window seat, grab one of the cozy booths, which seat two. From any seat, you can hear the sizzle of potatoes in hot grease or onions on the grill, which adds to the old-school ambiance.

Hayes Hamburger & Chili
Hayes Hamburger & Chili has been open since 1955 at 2502 N.E. Vivion Road in Kansas City, North. Sarah Gish

2. The burgers are small but delicious. In the age of Big Macs and Baconators, we’re used to oversized burgers. But at Hayes, portion sizes (and prices) are vintage. A double cheeseburger costs $3.45 and is well worth the price. The perfectly imperfect patty is made from fresh ground beef flattened on a grill with sliced onions, which add a slightly sweet crunch. A thin layer of melted American cheese melds to the squishy white bun — but really, it’s all about the beef.

Hayes hamburger
At Hayes Hamburger & Chili, the burgers are made with fresh ground beef and seared on a grill with onions until they’re flat, crisp and lacy around the edges. A squishy bun is the finishing touch. Sarah Gish

3. Breakfast is served 24 hours a day. I didn’t expect a small burger joint to have such a wide array of breakfast options. Eggs, sausage, hash browns and hotcakes. I’m all about the fluffy cakes, which cost $2.50 for two and are big enough to cover a plate. I recommend splitting them with a friend unless your appetite is enormous.

Hayes hot cakes
For $2.50, customers at Hayes Hamburger & Chili can get two hotcakes with butter and syrup. Sarah Gish

4. The chocolate malt tastes like Whoppers. I happen to love those malted milk balls, so that was a plus for me. The consistency was even better — light and smooth, with just a hint of crunchy malt pieces throughout. A small costs $3.55.

Hayes shake
Hayes’ ice cream offerings include creamy, whipped chocolate malts ($3.55 for a small). Sarah Gish

5. Onion rings are the employees’ favorite side. The woman working the cash register recommended the rings, which are coated with a coarse, crunchy batter. The crispy rings ($2.75) contrast nicely with a soft, squishy burger. I’m also a fan of the onion rings at HiBoy Drive-In and Mugs-Up in Independence.

Hayes onion rings
Hayes’ sides include fries, waffle fries, tots, chips, cheese sticks, mushrooms, fried cauliflower and onion rings. Sarah Gish

6. You better bring cash. Hayes Hamburger & Chili doesn’t take credit cards. Diners pay at the end of their meal.

7. Don’t skip the pie. Hayes’ flavors change often, but when I went they had raisin, strawberry rhubarb, butterscotch, coconut, pumpkin and cherry. I picked a slice of cherry ($2.85) because I’ve been watching a lot of Twin Peaks lately, but I bet strawberry rhubarb would be extra sweet this time of year. No room? Get it to go in a foam container (which costs an extra 20 cents) and you definitely won’t regret it.

Hayes cherry pie
Hayes Hamburger & Chili also sells pie. Slices come in flavors such as cherry (shown here), raisin, strawberry rhubarb, coconut, pumpkin and butterscotch. Sarah Gish