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Midwest comfort food restaurants to visit during fall and winter

Inside Burton's Cafè Country-style cooking, down-home atmosphere, and sweet pie highlight a visit to Burton’s Cafe. Photo courtesy Burton’s Café

There’s something about fall and winter that makes us crave the warm embrace of comfort food. Perhaps it’s the falling temperatures, the declining amount of sunlight, the gray skies, or the stark landscape that drive us to cheer and soothe our souls with rich pasta, fried chicken, or savory pizza.

But it goes deeper than that. From an evolutionary standpoint, the brain may signal an increase in appetite when the thermometer drops not only to provide warmth but perhaps also to prepare for the lower availability of food, explained Associate Clinical Professor Kimberly Kimchi, director of Integrated Health Psychology Services at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

What’s more, addiction-focused research has demonstrated a relationship between food and specific neurochemicals that regulate mood and behavior, including dopamine and serotonin. Innately seeking an emotional boost, we may crave certain foods.

“There’s evidence that foods high in sugar and carbohydrates do turn on the reward system of the brain,” Kimchi said, adding that many people put on 1 to 2 pounds each winter. “The joy and excitement of the fall and winter holidays often include more high-carbohydrate and sugar-laden options, as well as more stress and less outdoor activity. Combine the brain’s response to stress with the availability of highly pleasurable foods, and it becomes easier to understand the few extra pounds on the scale.”

While Kimchi advises people to be mindful of what they eat in the colder months and to maintain their exercise routines, you can still relish comfort food in moderation. Across the Midwest, you’ll find scores of restaurants where you can retreat to find warmth and happiness on a plate. A selection of writers visited some of their favorite places and offer ideas on what to eat to sustain you until spring.

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Lidia’s Kansas City

Kansas City, Missouri 

Lidia's Kansas City Pasta Trio

The Pasta Trio at Lidia’s Kansas City allows diners to sample a variety of pasta dishes. Photo courtesy Lidia’s Kansas City

You’ll feel the coziness as soon as you enter Lidia’s Kansas City, with its exposed brick and wood beams, inset walls of wine bottles, gorgeous blown-glass chandeliers, and a massive fireplace beside the expansive bar. Emmy Award–winning television host, best-selling cookbook author, and Italian food purveyor Lidia Bastianich co-owns the restaurant with her daughter Tanya.

Located in the Crossroads Arts District, Lidia’s has been a Kansas City staple since it opened nearly 25 years ago; it was Bastianich’s first restaurant outside New York City.

Italians have mastered the art of comfort food, and at Lidia’s you can start with the signature frico appetizer—a decadent Montasio cheese crisp served with potatoes, leeks, luganega sausage, and asparagus. Or try the arancini, fried rice balls filled with peas and smoked mozzarella, bathing in marinara.

Lidia’s Pasta Trio meal starts with Caesar salad and ends with your choice of dessert. Recent pastas on the menu at Lidia's have included sausage-and-fennel alfredo; rich, creamy spinach-and-ricotta ravioli; and penne with shrimp in a spicy tomato vodka sauce. Another favorite: the boneless beef short ribs braised in red wine, served with garlic mashed potatoes and horseradish gremolata.

Try to save room for dessert. You’ll swoon over tiramisu with rum cream and bittersweet chocolate sauce, or the Cioccolato e Ciliegia, a flourless chocolate and cherry cake with stracciatella gelato and cherry compote.


Kansas City, Missouri

Potpie pot pies

Flaky crusts drape over the sides of PotPie’s ultra-comforting signature dish, with chicken and vegetable options. Photo courtesy PotPie

Declaring a focus on “good food, not fast food,” the chalkboard menu changes daily at PotPie in the hip Westport area based on the availability of fresh ingredients. Serving homestyle food for nearly 2 decades, this cozy 40-seat bistro has a tin ceiling and brick walls adorned with funky art.

Executive Chef Brian Aaron took the helm in the kitchen in 2019 and continues to create a blend of comforting French and American dishes, which on a recent visit included a salad that combined dark beet greens and beet slivers topped with beet vinaigrette, plus tangy goat cheese spread across bread slices.

Our party ordered 2 versions of the restaurant’s namesake dish: the chicken and vegetable and the vegan root vegetable pot pies. Both featured flaky, light crusts cascading down the sides of oval baking dishes. Rich and satisfying, the chicken pot pie didn’t skimp on meat, and the vegan one incorporated loads of sliced mushrooms.

The pies encapsulate comfort in a single dish, but plenty of the restaurant’s other offerings are sure to warm you. Try the roasted fennel soup, the steamed mussels, or the pan-roasted chicken with mashed potatoes and pan jus. After dinner, I indulged in the soft, moist rum cake, generously topped with whipped cream and nut crumbles.

For $50, you can enjoy the Take and Bake package at home, featuring salad, 2 pot pies, and bread pudding. The perfect add-on: a Potpie-branded pair of what is perhaps the most comfortable clothing imaginable to lounge in while eating takeout—sweatpants.

Burton’s Café

Whittington, Illinois

A plated slice of White Pie from Burton's Cafe

Don’t leave Burton’s without trying the heavenly White Pie with its sweet vanilla flavor and fluffy texture. Photo courtesy Burton’s Café

Third-generation owner Jeff Jones runs Burton’s Café much the same as his grandparents did when they bought the restaurant in 1977. The down-home atmosphere, family-friendly service, and country-style cooking remain the same. Indeed, almost nothing at the restaurant has changed except its reputation—which has spread far beyond its hometown of Whittington, a small southern Illinois community on Rend Lake’s east side.

The café’s chalkboard menu lists daily specials that often include such traditional fare as fried catfish, chicken and dumplings, and roast pork with dressing.

No matter what you select for your main dish, however, cross your fingers that you’re able to order pie. Each day, Burton’s bakers make 15 to 20 pies, which sell out quickly. The White Pie—a luscious concoction with a creamy, fluffy texture, sweet vanilla flavor, and chopped pecan topping—is famous. The coconut cream, chocolate–peanut butter, and rhubarb pies rank as local favorites.

The café’s roots date to 1945, when Blake and Ruth Burton started selling raisin pie and hamburgers in a cattle auction barn. To make way for a road, in 1954 the Burtons built a restaurant across from the barn, which is the eatery’s present location. Harking back to the café’s early years, burgers and raisin pie still appear on the menu.

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Grace Meat + Three

St. Louis, Missouri

Fried chicken topped with pickles and a side of collard greens at Grace Meat + Three

Dig into the fried chicken, which has been recognized by the Food Network, and other Southern fare at Grace Meat + Three. Photo by Susan Manlin Katzman

Owners Rick (also the chef) and Elisa Lewis perfectly blend the quirky and the creative in all aspects of Grace Meat + Three. Located in the funky Grove neighborhood, this popular restaurant sports a large dining room, a full-service bar, sidewalk tables, a walk-up takeout window, and a playful attitude.

A large mural of St. Louis photos covers one wall, while family photos and a wacky assortment of thrift-store finds hang on others. Hubcaps adorn the counter, where folks line up to order food that’s placed directly on cafeteria-style trays, rather than plates, to be delivered to tables.

Although the decor is fun, Chef Rick’s food inspires serious praise. Based on casual Southern restaurant lunch-plate specials featuring a serving of meat with 3 sides, Grace’s menu allows customers to design their own combinations. Highlighted by what the Food Network and many others claim is Missouri’s best fried chicken, the menu includes perennial Southern-style favorites like barbecued ribs, fried bologna sandwiches, collard greens, and deviled eggs.

Rick’s imagination soars highest when he’s creating seasonal specials. A recent twist on the Big Mac, his tongue-in-cheek “Rick Mac” shared only a seeded bun in common with the famous burger. His ingredients included soft-shell crab covered with white American cheese, cabbage slaw, sweet green-tomato relish, and Alabama comeback sauce.

Honey Bee’s [Biscuits + Good Eats]

Kirkwood, Missouri

The Chorizo Sammie held up in front of the Honey Bee's sign

Biscuits take center stage at Honey Bee’s, including as part of the chorizo sausage sammie. Photo courtesy Michael and Meredith Shadwick

How sweet it is to open a business featuring your favorite food and enjoy immediate and unexpected success. The experience has been especially sweet for Mike Shadwick, who left his career in sales to follow his passion for cooking but was laid off from his first restaurant job in the early days of the pandemic.

Undeterred, he opened his own business, Honey Bee’s. He knows how to make great gravy, and his wife, Meredith, loves baking biscuits, so the couple pooled their talents to design a honey-glazed square biscuit that’s crispy on the outside but cakey and soft enough on the inside to absorb Mike’s rich, creamy gravy.

At first, the Shadwicks sold variations of their combo at a stall in the Kirkwood Farmers Market. Popularity led to a food truck, a catering business, and now a brick-and-mortar restaurant that was scheduled to open in mid-September on a busy corner in downtown Kirkwood.

Besides gravy—with a vegan option as well as versions with sausage or mushrooms—biscuit toppings include blueberries, chocolate chips, cinnamon-honey butter, and whatever else strikes the Shadwicks’ fancy. One rotating menu item from their food truck has been the Bee Sting, a biscuit topped with spicy sausage gravy and even spicier Red Hot Riplets chips.

“We’re always experimenting,” said Mike. In addition to biscuits and gravy, the Honey Bee's menu includes soft scrambled eggs, biscuit sandwiches, a salad, and a few simple, boozy brunch beverages. No wonder people beeline to any outlet the Shadwicks open.

Shakespeare’s Pizza

Columbia, Missouri

A pizza being loaded into the oven at Shakespeare’s Pizza

Another pie is ready for the oven at Shakespeare’s Pizza, which will celebrate its 50th birthday next year. Photo courtesy Shakespeare’s Pizza

According to writer Dale Carnegie, a person’s name to them is the sweetest sound in any language. Nowhere is this more accurate than at Shakespeare’s Pizza, where you anxiously wait to hear your name called over an intercom, signaling your pie is ready. That anticipation builds from the moment you open the door and walk past the kitchen, visible behind a plexiglass wall. You can see the staff rolling out dough, tossing it in the air, and loading it with toppings before sliding it into a massive stone-deck pizza oven.

Located downtown, just outside the University of Missouri-Columbia campus, the pizzeria’s original location has been a favorite of students and alumni for nearly 50 years; it has been joined more recently by 2 locations west and south of downtown. Before or after a brisk fall football game is the ideal time to enjoy a warm slice of pizza, which is America’s No. 1 comfort food according to a survey by food maker Sara Lee.

Shakespeare’s pizzas emerge from the oven with golden, gooey cheese draped over a crust that achieves the perfect balance of crispy and chewy. Customize your order with whole-wheat crust and pepper jack. While listening for your name, soak up the convivial atmosphere of this casual eatery, where the brick walls are adorned with vintage signs and the eclectic decor includes a motorcycle that sits atop the cubbies where you pick up plates, silverware, and—importantly—terry-cloth napkins.

“We’re throwing a party, not just making food. We try to have our employees have a good time, too, and the customers feel that,” said General Manager Kurt Mirtsching, who added that the fun ambience and the quality of the pizza both set Shakespeare’s apart. “Fresh vegetables, dough made from scratch all day long, the best lean meats, high-quality provolone cheese. It’s all handmade in stone-deck ovens. Good in equals good out.”


Jasper, Indiana

A pair of dirndl-clad women hold up glasses of beer at Schnitzelbank

At Schnitzelbank, wash down plates of sausage, schnitzel, and sauerbraten with a glass of German beer. Photo courtesy Schnitzelbank

You might feel as if you’ve stepped into a welcoming small-town German gasthaus when you enter Schnitzelbank and see a working glockenspiel and servers dressed in traditional dirndls. It’s okay if you don’t speak the language. Just bring a big appetite for rich, comforting fare.

Not much has changed here since the southern Indiana restaurant opened in 1961, and that’s exactly how the customers like it. Old-world decor, authentic German beer, and hearty cuisine have earned this Hoosier landmark countless accolades and loyal fans.

It’s easy to fill up at the endless Wunderbar Salad Bar alone—a dizzying selection of German- and American-style salads, pickles, vegetables, fruit, and 2 soups every day. Heavy on meat and potatoes, other fare includes classic Wiener schnitzel, gigantic Bavarian soft pretzels with beer-cheese dipping sauce, beefy goulash over spaetzle, and thick-cut pork chops. The menu suggests a wine pairing for each dish, or take a deep dive into the beer list for a cold hefeweizen, Kolsch, or pilsner.

Indecisive diners can opt for the wurst sampler, laden with 3 varieties of locally made sausage accompanied by sauerkraut, German fries, and sinus-searing hot mustard. For those who manage to save room, the German chocolate pie and the apple strudel with cinnamon ice cream offer a sweet finale. After your meal, browse the gift shop for beer steins, nutcrackers, Christmas ornaments, and other souvenirs. Prost!

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