Yes, you’re going to smell like fried onions for hours. But sometimes that’s the sacrifice required for amazing mini burgers from The Cozy Inn.
Two weeks ago I went to Denver with Michele to take her son Jacksen to college orientation. The last time I had been to Denver was 15 years ago with my mom, so I jumped at the opportunity.
I had originally planned to do a lot of research on restaurants before the trip, but then decided to just figure it out along the way. The only plan I needed to make ahead of time was where to stop for lunch on Thursday. The drive is about 9 hours, through lots and lots of nothingness, so we didn’t want to be caught trying to find something in a tiny town.
Salina KS is about 3 hours from Stillwater, and was a perfect stopping point. None of us had ever been to Salina, so I got online to look for options. The top rated restaurant is The Cozy Inn, and had been featured on Diners, Drive Ins and Dives. I have to admit I’m not a huge fan of Guy Fieri, but I love the restaurants he visits. One of my favorites is Blue Koi Noodles and Dumplings, now a must-stop for me on every drive to Kansas City.
Cozy Inn is located not far from downtown Salina. Well, then again, I don’t think Salina is very big, so everything is near the downtown business district.
As soon as we got out of the car, we smelled the burgers. We were already hungry, and that just put us over the top.
Cozy Inn opened in 1922. It hasn’t changed, and is one of the only 6-seat diners remaining in the country. You can walk through the entire diner in about 10 steps. The stools are so close to the counter that my knees were bumping into the counter and I’m only 5’7”. But it has to be that way so there is enough room for people to both walk and stand between the counter and the back wall.
We learned that the grill they use is the original one from 1922. The grill was replaced at some point, but due to lots of customer requests, they brought it back. There’s no way the burgers would have tasted the same on a new grill, so I understand that. The burgers are cooked in a section that is about 6″ lower than the rest of the grill, something I had never seen before. They put a layer of onions down, smash the patties onto the onions, and then smash another layer of onions on top.
The first thing I thought when I saw the burgers is that they reminded me of White Castle. Lo and behold, I was right! The original owner, Bob Kinkel, used the White Castle concept to develop the Cozy Inn burgers. Cozy Inn has a long history, including a time when it almost closed down. Steve is the current owner of Cozy Inn, and what I like best is that he was at the grill, making burgers the whole time we were there. I love owners who are so involved.
When we arrived, there were 4 stools available, and we decided to sit inside. Keeping with the diner style, there are no frills at all. Everything is easily disposable, including the paper placemats. The Cozy Inn menu is about as simple as it gets: burgers, bagged chips, canned soft drinks and water. You can buy the burgers individually or in quantities of 6, 12 or 24. The prices are diner friendly too. You can get 6 burgers, chips and a drink for $8.00, and individual burgers are $1.14 each.
When we told Steve we had never been there before, he said he would start us with 2 burgers each, start a tab, and then settle up when we were done eating. The only place you’ll ever find something like that is at a locally-owned, small town diner type restaurant. And I love it.
All of the burgers are cooked with onions, and they don’t offer cheese. “Everything” is ketchup, mustard and pickles.
Michele and Jacksen got their burgers first, and as I was taking pictures I heard their reactions. Then I took a bite of my own. Wow. The meat was so juicy and tender, helped of course by the onions. Fried onions make everything taste better. The bread was nice and soft, and they use just enough ketchup, mustard and pickles to add one more punch of flavor. Michele and I both got the salt & vinegar chips, which were delicious. I had never heard of the brand, but may need to look into them, because they have a wonderful bite and flavor.
Steve started telling us about how the operation runs, and encouraged us to go into the back and check it out. The back room isn’t that much bigger than the front, but that’s where everything happens.
The Cozy Inn staff hand-peels the onions, and sends them through a processor to chop them. They go through 300lbs of onions EVERY WEEK. Steve said they cut as much as they can once per week. The guy who does the onions said he’s shed thousands of tears over time. The beef is freshly ground by a local company, and then hand rolled into balls for the patties. The buns are made especially for Cozy Inn. During our visit they went through at least 10 bags of buns, even though we didn’t get there until 1:30. The care and detail they put into the operation is what makes for such a delicious product.
There is one down side to Cozy Inn…you will stink of fried onions. It’s probably not horrible if you’re only in there long enough to pick up an order to go, but by the time we ate, visited with the staff, and checked out the operation, we were inside for a good 30 minutes. We should have driven with the windows down for a while, because the car smelled until the following night. My purse still had the odor on Sunday morning, so I put it out on the back patio to air out. Michele bought a t-shirt for Reilly. The shirts are kept in a cabinet next to the grill, individually packaged in Ziploc bags. Michele said they had to immediately put the shirt into the laundry when they took it out of the bag, because it still had such a strong odor. One of the staff had told me that some of the local businesses don’t let their staff go into the diner to eat because of the smell. Cozy Inn solved that problem by having a walk-up window! Another outside option is the picnic tables
As we ate, a couple next to us started talking about the huge US map on the wall behind us. It was completely bare, with stickpins on the side, so guests could say where they were visiting from. We learned that Steve had just cleared the pins yesterday, so I was excited to be the” first” pin from Stillwater.
We’re not going to let a little thing like the lingering smell keep us from going back to Cozy Inn. And clearly we are not alone. But next time we’ll get them from the walk-up window and eat them out at one of the patio tables. Or have a change of clothes ready to go. Or both.