We push through the glass doors and let our eyes adjust from the bright afternoon sun. There are tinted windows, low lighting and faint echoes of people laughing and cheering. And then we hear a long, low rumble, followed by a … crash.
Ah yes, the distinctive sound signature of a bowling alley. Specifically the Gladstone Bowl at 300 N.W. 72nd St. in Kansas City, North.
But my wife, Gay, and I aren’t here to practice trick shots or get that 7-10 split down. Nope. We’re here to get some burgers. Just in time for today, which is National Cheeseburger Day.
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I know this guy that says the burgers here are great. And I trust him.
That guy is Jerry Fisher. If you don’t know Fisher from the Kansas City food scene, he’s all about supporting everything local and high-quality in the Kansas City culinary world.
However, Fisher is not an “everything’s great in Kansas City” kind of guy. He’s opinionated, picky, loud, interesting, controversial, diverse and always dead-on with his recommendations. He’s got his bread place, his breakfast place, his coffee place (which will vary depending on if he wants to smoke a cigar), his after-breakfast place and his restaurants (which are only a handful).
All of his “places” are extremely solid. So when Fisher tells me to try this place for a burger, I’m gonna listen. Even if it is in a bowling alley. And since I got special clearance from Fisher to tell you about this place — one of his places — you’d better listen, too.
We whip around the corner in Gladstone Bowl and there it is: Smitty’s Diner. It’s a 1950s-era diner — checkerboard tile floor, colored neon lights, Formica-topped tables and those well-padded stools with the thick chrome pedestals at the counter.
We’re given menus, but I already know what I want. I scan past the sandwiches, snack fare and Southwest-style offerings to get to the burgers. We decide on the double cheeseburger and the Gladstone burger (double cheeseburger with Swiss and American cheese). And of course, we need some tater tots. Why not, right?
Sitting at the counter — one of my favorite places to sit (see my Dining Tips blog) — we can see everything the cook is doing. Now I fully expect to see her go over to the freezer and pull out four burger patties and throw them on the flat top. Instead, the meat came from the refrigerator. Interesting. We have some idle chit chat with the cook while she was prepping our lunch. Finally, the burgers and tots come to the counter, and we’re ready to dive in.
We take a bite. “Wow!” was my first thought. Even though these were the old-timey, thin-ish style burgers, they were by no means thin on flavor. The burgers were perfectly seasoned, meaty and full of rich, savory, beefy flavor. I mean these burgers had some character to them. Both of us were excited about what we were tasting. Our enthusiasm was not lost on the cook.
“Do you like ‘em?” she asked, smiling.
“OMG, these are so flavorful,” said Gay. “I can’t believe it.”
“I’m just amazed,” I said. “We were told to come here, but I really didn’t have high expectations. Now I’m just beside myself. These burgers are really good.”
“Well you know, we bring the meat in fresh daily,” said the cook, who we now know is Karen Cosner. “Oh yeah, the owner is a stickler about that. And as far as me, I’m going to make sure I cook you the best burger you ever had, at least while I’m working.”
This is a person that really takes pride in her work.
OK, so now I’m interested. Who is she? As we chat more with Cosner, we find out she loves watching Food Network and cooking shows. She loves to visit her kids in California, where they like to spoil her by taking her to celebrity chef restaurants while she’s there. Her eyes lit up when she talked about cooking techniques or going to Chef Mario Batali’s place. Is this the sort of conversation you’d expect to have with a cook at a bowling alley diner?
Here’s a person that some people might think is just doing a job to do a job. But instead, Cosner taps into what she loves doing to make others happy. I mean she’s really into this. And if you think about it, isn’t that a great formula for work? Sharing your passion with others. That’s the extra ingredient to a great meal that seems to elude so many places. Passion can be very hard to find. Combine that with fresh ingredients and solid cooking skills, and you’ve got a shot at success.
We chat with Cosner for quite a while. Such an enjoyable person. I always love getting to know more about people — especially people that cook for me. Soon, it’s time to leave. As we say our goodbyes, a few things come to mind.
▪ That was a really good value for the two of us to eat a filling and great-tasting lunch, and
▪ We were both perfectly satisfied with what we ate.
▪ I wish I saw more passion like Cosner’s in the restaurant industry.
Do you know that feeling you get when you think to yourself, “I don’t want to eat anything else because I don’t want this flavor to leave my mouth?” That’s how wonderful this lunch was. Good, honest, burger-ness.
So, if you have the craving for a good burger and you’d like some interesting ambiance, check out Smitty’s Diner inside Gladstone Bowl. Enjoy a great burger. And who knows? You may even decide to work on your bowling game, too.
Craig Jones is a live-fire cooking expert, the Grill Mayor for Food Network (2012), and owner of Savory Addictions Gourmet Nuts. He’s also a certified KCBS BBQ judge, a student of pizza crafting and an enthusiastic supporter of the greater Kansas City food scene.