The flagship restaurant at Buena Park’s Knott’s Berry Farm theme park isn’t just some country-fried Cracker Barrel doppelganger. Whether or not your idea of a good time involves mixing mashed potatoes and roller coaster inversions, Mrs. Knott’s remains an iconic establishment with history in its dirt. As the longest-standing theme park restaurant in history, it buries other hallowed eateries, and admission’s not even required.
The nearly 84-year-old restaurant is perched outside this regional theme park, which got its footing on the back of Cordelia and Walter Knott’s 10-acre farm of berry crops. In the 1920s, the couple sold fruit, jam, sweets, and biscuits to passersby from a farm stand. They eventually expanded with a stock of berry plants sold out of a stucco building that included an onsite tea room. To supposedly help with funds during the Great Depression, Cornelia added her homemade fried chicken to the menu in the summer of 1934, serving each 65-cent meal atop her own wedding china.
Success came shortly thereafter, and three years later, the tea room transformed into a full-fledged restaurant. By 1940, Mrs. Knott’s was serving 4,000 chicken dinners every Sunday to unfathomably large crowds that waited outside and wandered through Knott’s Berry Place, a shopping mall filled with small town bric-a-brac and home goods that stands to this day.
The Knotts never set out to abandon their origins as berry farmers. The theme park merely served as a preoccupation for entertaining chicken-seeking crowds. Walter Knott began by building a Western “ghost town” in the 1940s, which still exists (and turns into a horror-filled stretch of figures and frights each Halloween), soon adding a saloon, a century-old steam train, and a replica historic Western theatre where a young Steve Martin would eventually perform onstage.
Though Knott’s Berry Farm holds the title for America’s first theme park and predated Disneyland by years, it also served as a little-known nexus for Mickey Mouse’s final stage of development. After spending a day surveying land and finalizing the location for his forthcoming Southern California park, Walt Disney stopped at Mrs. Knott’s for a celebratory dinner. A realtor seated nearby overheard the discussion of Walt’s decision and scooped up 20 acres of land from under him, thus raising the price and forcing Disney to move his project to the Anaheim location it resides in today.
These days, Knott’s Berry Farm may not be the pinnacle theme park in the area in terms of attendance, but it nonetheless draws a crowd, with an estimated 4 million visitors arriving annually for high-stakes thrills, family-friendly rides, and its double-fried chicken.
There are plenty of menu choices at Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner Restaurant, but everyone’s here for $21.99 headliner, which it serves all day. It comes with three pieces of the crispy good stuff along with salad, rhubarb, veggies, mashed potatoes, pie, and unlimited biscuits. The menu has barely evolved over time, merely adding substitutions of chicken noodle soup and sherbet and a choice of corn or cabbage with ham. The chicken recipe has only changed to remove one ingredient: lard.
In the 1990s, Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner Restaurant even spread its little fried wings to nearby locations in Irvine, Moreno Valley, and Mission Viejo, but they’ve all since closed. The theme park itself isn’t short on cash, because Cedar Entertainment Company now owns everything from the park and its attached restaurant. Meanwhile, the J.M. Smucker Company owns the rights to the packaged food business, including Knott’s jams and those vending machine shortbread cookies.
Still, Mrs. Knott’s popularity has far from waned. Thanks to a recent redesign that could double as a portal to the farmhouse designs of Fixer Upper’s Texan establishments, the new Mrs. Knott’s can seat up to 1,000 customers at a time. The restaurant and bar, which only closes on Christmas, serves about 1,000 birds a day, adding up to over 1 million pounds of chicken a year, according to the Orange County Register.
Even as Knott’s Berry Farm corners the market with modern thrills, like California’s first-ever dive coaster, there’s another legacy within the chicken establishment: boysenberries. The park, which is credited with proliferating the raspberry-blackberry-loganberry mixture, still celebrates the hybrid fruit with a food festival each spring. It’s here, at Big Boysenberry HQ, where the berry is nearly as prevalent as the arousing smell of fried chicken wafting through the air in lieu of freshly popped popcorn or other typical theme park fare.
At Mrs. Knott’s, the pie is boysenberry, the cocktails are boysenberry, the salad dressing is boysenberry, and the preserves are strawberry. (Just kidding, they’re boysenberry.) Because here, at the little theme park restaurant that’s stood the test time of time, even the condiments have their place in history.
Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner Restaurant. 8039 Beach Blvd, Buena Park, CA 90620.