As the clock nears midnight on a recent Friday in October, the line is out the door at Town Topic in Kansas City, Missouri. Strangers willingly converse as they inch toward a smiling waitress, her white pad in hand. She slides orders to the cook working the flattop, where burger patties sizzle in neat rows. Conversation bounces off the white subway-tiled walls, but eyes remain fixed on the Formica counter, eager for the moment those wax paper–wrapped burgers and fat golden onion rings get stuffed into a white paper bag. The wait is torture. The wait is everything.
A couple argues, a woman poking a finger into her man’s chest. On the other side of the packed room, a man in a fedora tells another woman that “a piece of pie makes the world go around,” breaking out into a surprisingly clear falsetto. “You my strawberry pie,” he sings. The woman takes her order to go.
Town Topic opened its doors in 1937. Today, Scott Sparks, the grandson of founder Claude Sparks, owns three locations, but 2021 Broadway Boulevard is the only one that’s open 24 hours. Town Topic is never your first stop of the evening, but once it’s in the conversation, you’re going for hash browns and the ever-percolating pot of coffee. It’s the rhythmic blinking heart of the Crossroads neighborhood—a place to swap stories about where you’ve been so far and where you’re headed next. Breakfast is served all day and night.
A couple fresh from a comedy show of local YouTubers waits for their order next to Fedora Falsetto. A pair of off-shift servers is delighted to have snagged a rare open stool. (At this hour, curbs and car hoods serve as backup seating and tables.) A forlorn Guardians of the Galaxy pinball machine is tucked into a corner. Thick slices of pie—apple, blackberry and chocolate cream—sit in a refrigerated case next to half-pint cartons of orange juice. Everybody considers ordering the chili cheese fries, but realizes a double cheeseburger—two beef patties, lettuce, pickles and grilled onions—is cheaper, and the debate ends there.
Although KC built its reputation on steak, it’s actually more of a burger town thanks to an ample supply of local beef—a holdover from the city’s stockyard legacy—and a host of classic diners known for their burgers: Jim’s Diner’s oversized two-handers; Hayes Hamburgers & Chili’s thin, chili-laden patties; 57-year-old Humdinger Drive-In’s egg-topped monsters. And each time Town Topic’s front door swings open, and the smell of sizzling beef and grilled onions wafts outside, the case is made.
Late one evening, PUNCH stopped by to find out more about the people in line and the many burgers they ordered.
James, 38, and Grace, 27, Kansas City, Missouri
What brings you to Town Topic?
James: I just got off work at a pizza place and she wanted to go do something. We’ve been trying to go to First Fridays [a once-a-month arts walk in the Crossroads] forever. There are two Town Topics, like, three blocks apart, but we came here because this one is open 24 hours.
You two are a couple?
Grace: He was playing in a band in a basement. He offered me a lighter. That was five years ago and I still have that lighter.
What was the band’s name?
James: Goat Rainbow. I was on the stage. We made eye contact and sometimes you just know, there’s a look that someone is giving you. We fell in love.
James works at a pizza place. What do you do, Grace?
Grace: I used to work in the haunted houses. I was an actor in the Macabre Cinema. I was a victim in Saw. It was perfect, although there was so much fake blood everywhere. It’s Karo Syrup and food coloring. It never comes out of your hair, but it was worth it.
What did you order?
James: Cheeseburger and fries. I just wanted a burger, a reliable burger, and this is the best burger. [James walks inside to grab their order.]
Grace: It’s my second time here. The first was great. It was over the summer. We’d been swimming and then we came here, and I was like, “This place is amazing.”
[James comes back carrying a white sack with a pair of cheeseburgers topped with lettuce, tomato and grilled onions.]
James, did you introduce Town Topic to her?
James: I’ve been coming here for 20 years. When it’s time to go to Town Topic, it’s time to go to fucking Town Topic. Sometimes you just need a burger in your life.
Grace: [Takes a bite] This is satisfying. I might cry.
Tim, 28, J.J., 26, and friend, Kansas City, Missouri
Where are you coming from?
Tim: We’re just stopping here to work off that liquor buzz. Then we’re going to go back [out] to whatever club we want to go to next.
What’s your order?
J.J.: I get pancakes, hash browns, eggs. Unless it’s late, then I’m getting a big-ass cheeseburger. What are you doing here?
I’m working on a story.
J.J.: That’s right. You should be here, put Kansas City on the map.
How do you know Tim?
J.J.: They’re my cousins, but they’re more like brothers.
Tim: You should come back here at 3 a.m. That’s when it’s popping.
J.J.: We might come back at 4 a.m. or 5 a.m.
After you shut the club down?
Nick, 30, Kansas City, Missouri; Mike, 31, Washington, D.C.; Bill the Bachelor, 31, and six friends, Michigan
How you’d end up at Town Topic?
Nick: I live here in Kansas City. We had to go to Town Topic. We’re coming from Up-Down [a bar arcade two blocks away].
Why are you all together?
Bill: We all grew up together in Michigan.
Mike: This is Bill’s bachelor party. We all got married when we were 25. So this is like a last hurrah.
We’re all in a fantasy football league and my team is named after his mom [nods to another member of the group], Linda. It’s $120 a person, but last place has to get a tattoo or be in a calendar. It’s something like them in a dress holding a sign saying they’re bad at fantasy football. Although the deal is you can’t share it electronically or else you have to make a calendar too. Nobody has gotten a tattoo yet.
What did you order?
Mike: I got a burger.
Friend: I got pancakes.
Another Friend: I just hope somebody got me a burger.
Third Friend: Do they have Doritos?
I don’t think so, man…
Fourth Friend: Can I buy a cigarette off you?
Sam, 25, and Caitie, 23, Kansas City, Missouri
Where are you coming from?
Sam: We’re coming from a concert at the Sprint Center. Luke Combs. He’s a country singer.
Does he sing about heartbreak?
Sam: He sings it all.
What was your favorite song tonight?
Sam and Caitie: “Hurricane.” [Both laugh.]
Sam: It’s about a girl, who comes at him like a hurricane.
How do you know each other?
Caitie: We’re sisters. There are five kids and Sam’s the oldest.
What was it like growing up together?
Caitie: I always looked up to her. She was a rule follower and my parents were always proud of her. I wanted them to be proud of me, too.
Sam: Whoooa. Deep moment while waiting for double cheeseburgers.
Have you been to Town Topic before?
Sam: We’ve never been here. But seeing the line when we walked up, it’s got to be good, right? Our friend is in there getting our order. Double cheeseburger and fries.
Did you get a shake?
Sam: We didn’t know they had shakes. Then we saw everybody coming out with shakes and in hindsight we wish we had gotten one.
Pat, 34, and Karla, 36, Overland Park, Kansas
How did you meet?
Karla: On Bumble.
What have you been up to tonight?
Pat: We saw The Joker and then we had some gin cocktails at Tom’s Town.
How was it?
Karla: It was dark. But you should see it.
What did you order?
Karla: I ordered cheese fries. And the lady behind the counter was like, “It’s just melted American cheese on fries.” And I was like, “I know.”
Never had those. How are they?
Karla: [Pauses] … Like melted American cheese on fries… They’re not, uh… [trails off]… but they’re where I am right now.
Pat, what did you get?
Pat: I got us both double cheeseburgers. This is Karla’s first time here. Fries for her. Tots for me. I’ve tried to do the triple before, but I couldn’t do it. The double is right.
Karla [mid-bite]: This is the In-N-Out of Kansas City.
That’s a big statement.
Karla: It is, though. It’s fresh. It’s great. There are no pickles, right? Pat, you got the one with pickles? [Pat nods. Karla takes another bite.] It’s the In-N-Out of Kansas City.