If you’ve ever wondered what food tasted like 100 years ago, Dixon’s Famous Chili on Highway 40 is like a culinary time capsule.
With its red décor, bar stools and historic photos, it looks like a 1960s-style diner, and that’s when this particular restaurant opened near the stadiums on U.S. Highway 40.
In 1919, Vergne Dixon opened the original location at 15th and Olive streets just east of downtown, which makes it one of the oldest family-run establishments in the Kansas City metro; Dixon’s Chili eventually became a chain of 13 restaurants, including one in Minnesota.
“The recipe was Vergne’s recipe, and our chili powder is our own patented chili powder that he came up with,” said Stephen Steffes, who now manages the last remaining shop.
Vergne Dixon was Stephen Steffes’ great great uncle, and the restaurant was passed down through the generations. It’s now owned by Steffes’ mother, Terri Totta-Smith.
Kansas City Style Chili
Step aside, Texas and Cincinatti: some say the “loose meat” of Dixon’s chili represents the Kansas City style.
“We always say that our chili kind of comes with an explanation,” Steffes said.
The explanation is a pre-emptive strike for customers who’ve never heard of this kind of chili: It’s not tomato-based, the beans and meat are cooked separately, and it’s served on a plate. The condiments are do-it-yourself. You can choose from: onions, a jalapeno relish, vinegar, hot sauce, cheese and sour cream.
If you want it a little wetter, you can get your chili “soupy,” with extra bean broth, or “juicy,” with grease that was squeezed out of the meat.
“A lot of the old-timers still say greasy, but we changed it to juicy because it sounds a little more appetizing,” Steffes said.
The one thing you’re not supposed to have with it is ketchup.
“Vergne Dixon didn’t allow ketchup in his restaurant, and people used to try to sneak it in and he’d kick 'em out,” Steffes said. “He took it [as] real insulting.”
When Dixon’s nephew took over, he decided he would allow ketchup on premises, but fined customers 15 cents if they put it on the chili.
So much about Dixon’s chili is exactly the way it was made 100 years ago, though Stephen Steffes has added a few innovations.
He’s made a giant wooden oar with a PVC pipe handle to break up 100 pounds of meat as it fries. And to do it even faster, he gives it a whirl with a homemade immersion blender fashioned out of a drill and a custom bit.
But it is the consistency that has kept people coming back over the years, from KCUR’s late, legendary broadcaster Walt Bodine to homeboy President Harry Truman, who began frequenting Dixon’s in 1920 because it reminded him of the food he ate in the military in World War I.
A couple of other old-timey restaurants in Kansas City also make chili the Kansas City way, like Fritz’s Chili in Overland Park (which used to be a Dixon’s) and Hays Hamburgers and Chili in the Northland.
Ed. note: A previous version of this story misidentified the city in which Fritz's Chili is located.
Sylvia Maria Gross is a reporter and editor at KCUR, and senior producer of the show Central Standard. You can reach her at email@example.com and @pubradiosly.