Home to Pittsburg State University and no less than six chicken dinner restaurants (not counting KFC!), Pittsburg clearly has a population of devoted fried chicken lovers. It also attracts chicken pilgrims from around the country and the world. There is really no place like it. Of the city’s several sources, Chicken Mary’s and Chicken Annie’s — practically across the road from each other — have long dominated the scene; but to some of us, Barto’s Idle Hour is the best of them all.
It originally opened as a weekend venue for local polka acts in the 1950s. Over a decade passed before Ray Barto began selling chicken dinners next door. Located at the edge of a residential area, and therefore requiring careful attention to the roadside signage, Barto’s is a dinner-only affair. Even the earliest of birds cannot score the worm until four in the afternoon. The dining room is utilitarian, the staff super-friendly, and the menu fairly simple. Interestingly, if you search for Barto’s online, you are likely to encounter listings for “Barto’s Idle Hour Steakhouse & Lounge”; however, the signs along the road proclaim “Barto’s Idle Hour Chicken.”
Although we cannot vouch for the steaks, the fried chicken is at the top of our list, exceeding all necessary criteria — from its crispy-without-being-overly-greasy skin to the meat’s melt-in-your-mouth juiciness. Pieces of white and dark meat can be ordered individually, but to do so would mean missing out on the traditional sides that are inextricably tied to chicken dinners in this region. As opposed to the more typical mayonnaise-laden potato salads and cole slaws, local menus offer these side dishes German-style (vinegar and oil-based). The result is nothing short of wunderbar, as both sides are both delightfully zesty and highly addictive. Those looking to emphasize the “fried” in fried chicken dinner, however, are encouraged to pay the supplemental charge and add a side of homemade onion rings to the mix. Their fragile crust makes these rings unforgettable. Each table also gets a basket of bread freshly baked by the Frontenac Bakery, which services all of the chicken restaurants in the area.
In addition to serving dine-in patrons, Barto’s also does substantial take-out business. Over the course of our dinner, we noted a steady stream of customers coming to pick up to-go boxes ranging in size from individual to family reunion. As a genteel parting touch, the check is dropped off with crossed sticks of Juicy Fruit gum.
In our book, anyone who contends that Stroud’s of Kansas City—or, frankly, any other place—has the country’s best fried chicken obviously has not tried Barto’s. It ranks among our most memorable Roadfood stops of all time.