The Untold Truth Of Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinner Restaurant

Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinner Restaurant is one of America's greatest national treasures that you may have never heard of. It's the story of the American dream coupled with hard work, some lucky happenstances, and incredible fried chicken. There's also berries, and lots of them — more on that to come. Armed with aspirations, Walter and Cordelia Knott drove their Model T Ford to Buena Park, California, just southeast of Los Angeles, in 1920, and the rest is history.

Now a California institution and flagship restaurant of Knott's Berry Farm, Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinner Restaurant serves over 1,000 plates a day of their award-winning fried chicken to the over 1.5 million poultry-seeking, greasy-fingered guests that walk through their doors each year. Many come just for the chicken, while others pair it with a visit to the nationally recognized theme park the founders built just next store (really!). If you're curious how comfort food, berries, and roller coasters intersect, it all begins with the labor of love that was and is Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinner Restaurant.

It all began with a farm stand in the 1920s

When the Knotts family first planted their roots in SoCal in 1920, their fresh start came in the form of a small fruit. Together with a cousin, who was an experienced farmer, they leased land to begin farming berries. While far from a glamorous life, their little venture proved profitable. By the end of the decade, their roadside stand developed into a favorite of locals complete with a market and tea room where Cordelia sold the jams and sweets she made from their harvested berries.

Despite economic hardships and the Great Depression, the family forged on until their big break came from Mr. Boysen, a berry experimentalist, so to speak. They tracked down Rudolph Boysen who shared with them a crop of special berries, far more delicious than the average variety, he had long given up on harvesting himself. The mangled mess of a plant was covered in weeds, but the Knotts were able to salvage just enough of the plant in an effort to grow and cultivate it on their own. Much to their surprise, a year later they were met with massive hybrid berries that are a cross between a blackberry and red raspberry. In 1934, they became the first to successfully harvest this crop, which they dubbed boysenberries. The crop proved so bountiful they then used this newfound fruit in commercially produced jams and pies as well as in Cornelia's on-site tea room.

The now historic landmark has been a California dining institution since 1934

Walter was not alone in his bright-eyed, food-focused ambitions. His wife Cordelia was cooking up something of her own, quite literally, that would set the trajectory for what would one day become their legacy. With her sights set on adding extra income for the family, Cordelia offered a chicken dinner for guests of her small tea room in the summer of 1934. The lone eight fried chicken dinners — of which she cooked onsite at their nearby house — were served on her own wedding china for a mere 65 cents a plate. 

The bird was the word as people quickly flocked en masse to the small-town operation. By the end of the year, their small tea room had grown to accommodate 20 guests, and by 1936 it had more than tripled in size. As demand escalated, they quickly established themselves as a full-service restaurant that could serve over 600 guests in a weekend. Much to their surprise, even the newly minted dining room expansion quickly proved to be not nearly enough space for the venture. Visitors waited hours upon hours, an unheard-of concept at that time in the restaurant industry, for just one bite of Cordelia's famous fried chicken. 

Their fried chicken dinner is legendary

Closed only on Christmas day, it is winner, winner, chicken dinner (and lunch) 364 days a year at Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinner Restaurant. They continue to use Cordelia's original recipe, minus the lard, resulting in a rather remarkable, memorable dish. While it may be odd to describe a chicken as spellbinding, you'll understand after just a bite of the crispy, fried exterior that gives way to its juicy center.

So, just how do they do it? Well, first thing's first: No Slugworths allowed in this kitchen. You're not going to unlock the secret recipe as their bird arrives at the kitchen pre-marinated. A custom-built fryer machine then accounts for a 33-minute, hands-free process that results in fried glory as the poultry makes its journey through 2,000 pounds of oil along a 20-foot long conveyor belt.

Available for lunch and dinner, their famous fried chicken is still served much like it was at that original summer dinner with mashed potatoes, country gravy, and a slice of pie to finish. Attempts were made at expanding to other nearby Southern California locations, but their success seems to be partially planted in the historical location where they quite literally placed their roots.

They built one of America's first themed amusement parks to entertain hopeful diners

By 1940, the Knotts were met with the unprecedented challenge of what to do with the thousands of awaiting diners. A gift shop of knick-knacks was not nearly enough to accommodate and entertain the daily heavy foot traffic. While the shops are still standing to this day at Knott's California Marketplace, they had visions much more amusing that would soon come to fruition.

The Knotts began small with exhibits and oddities until eventually building what they touted as the only active volcano in SoCal. As fantastical as that sounds, roadside attractions were fairly common at that time and this proved to be a true marvel in the area. Their ideas become more grandeur until they eventually constructed an old ghost town using salvaged materials from old buildings. Sewn throughout were little nods that reflected their history, including the now long-gone covered wagon show inspired by Walter Knott's own relatives' journey out West. The ghost town came to life with costumed performers and even a Western-style saloon, both of which are still a part of the immersive experience today.

It wasn't meticulously planned as a theme park but happened rather organically. Today, the old has married the new as the ghost town still stands and the park has expanded to include thrill rides. Welcoming over 4 million visitors a year, Knott's Berry Farm is an innovative park that celebrates the past while embracing the future of theme park design.

They serve all things boysenberry (including beer!)

Despite rapid expansion, they haven't forgotten the roots of where it all began: the boysenberry. The fruit is celebrated across menus at the theme park in what could best be described as a berry-laden, Bubba Gump Shrimp-inspired fever dream. With treats as far and wide as the eye can see, you can indulge in a boysenberry battered corn dog, boysenberry stuffed churro, boysenberry topped funnel cake, boysenberry cookies, boysenberry soda, and the famous fun bun — one of their signature treats, the fun bun is a deep-fried cinnamon bun, topped with powdered sugar and a sticky boysenberry glaze.

Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinner Restaurant also offers an array of boysenberry-centric bites and even libations. That's right. You can get your buzz on with their signature, crisp boysenberry draft beer or even boysenberry-infused cocktails. Meals are complete with their signature house-made buttermilk biscuits (they're all-you-care-to-eat to boot!), complete with a side of boysenberry preserve, and even a salad with tangy boysenberry dressing. No stone (or berry?) has gone unturned!

Smucker Co. bought the rights to the Knott's jams

What started out as a small roadside stand eventually would lead to commercialized jarred goods for visitors of Southern California to relish. Flash forward decades later, and the jam is now a worldwide commodity thanks to the J. M. Smucker Co. The food arm of Knott's business first sold to ConAgra, Inc. in 1995 but was latterly acquired by Smucker's in 2008. As part of the deal, they acquired twenty-five original family recipes with the ability to tweak them as they would see fit. They continue to market and produce a line of jams, jellies, and preserves with global distribution bringing in a reported $40 million annually.

Interestingly enough, soon after the acquisition, Knott's moved forward with producing another line of products — including jams and preserves. Guests visiting Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinner Restaurant and Knott's Berry Farm can still bring home a taste of Cordelia's kitchen with them, but it's going to look a bit different. There are a handful of preserves you can purchase while visiting but since Smucker's owns the rights, they are under the new Berry Market brand.

Walt Disney was a huge supporter

The area of Buena Park wasn't much more than an agricultural community until two men changed it all: Walter Knott and Walt Disney. While it may be easy to conjure up fantasies of two riveling theme park innovators, they were actually close friends who supported each other's grandiose theme park and entrepreneurial visions. It's been documented that the two, along with their wives, even double-dated (via OC Weekly).

Disney was absolutely enamored with what the Knotts were doing in what was previously known as a drive-through town on the way to the beach. A locomotive enthusiast, he particularly was fascinated by the Knotts bringing in an actual train from the Western Railroad, of which Disney and his wife, Lillian, were invited on its inaugural run. Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinner Restaurant often welcomed Walt Disney into dine, while the Knotts were personal guests of the mouse on the grand opening day of Disneyland in 1955. The success of Disneyland just down the road only helped Knott's, which saw a big financial boost that year. Decades later and long after the two men had passed, the Walt Disney Co. had even tried to purchase Knott's Berry Farm. The Knott's children firmly objected (Cedar Fair Entertainment eventually sealed the deal) and we are still left to ponder what might have been.

It's now a full-blown travel destination

It was a long journey before Knott's Berry Farm transformed into the modern theme park that it is today. While visiting is free of charge for Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinner restaurant and their retail area, Knott's California Marketplace, Knott's Berry Farm theme park is admission based with over 40 attractions. The ghost town remains to this day, but it's since been built upon to accommodate the modern-day thrill seeker and incorporate different themed lands — they even licensed the Peanuts characters for a kid-friendly Camp Snoopy area. Longstanding attractions remain ever as popular, like a log flume ride that opened in 1969 and the classic Calico Mine Ride.

After finding success as a regional family destination they have added a separately gated water park, Knott's Soak City, and the Knott's Berry Farm Hotel, just steps from Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinner Restaurant. They also play host to a series of annual events throughout the year, including one of the largest Halloween events in Southern California, Knott's Scary Farm.

Guests gobble down 1,000 chicken dinners a day

Just like the property itself, Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinner Restaurant has expanded greatly since its humble beginnings. They now serve over 1.5 million guests a year thanks to their expanded restaurant. It now holds the title of being one of the largest full-service restaurants in the world with the ability to seat 1,000 guests at a single time. The once quaint tea room now includes eight separate dining rooms each with a distinct theme, including a nod to Mrs. Knott's own kitchen and a charming room reminiscent of a western farmhouse. The restaurant went through an extensive refurbishment in 2016 which included the addition of a modern, yet aptly themed bar where you can chow down on the ultimate berry-themed bar food — boysenberry barbecue slathered chicken wings.

With close proximity to Hollywood, it's not totally out of the question to be noshing down on some freshly fried chicken amongst the stars. In its early days, Elizabeth Taylor was even known to have visited the restaurant — and documented her visit by signing a guest book. Current pop culture icon and a visitor since birth, Gwen Stefani, has even thrown lavish parties there and often takes her kids to the theme park.

Their annual boysenberry festival brings in people from all over the world

Their history is deeply planted in their famous chicken and their future continues on with thrills, like being home to California's first dive coaster, but the berry is at the forefront of everything they do. In addition to the inclusion of the luscious fruit throughout the property, they lament the fruit one step further with an annual boysenberry food festival. To say the festival is an experience would be an understatement. Throughout the birthplace of the fruit, guests can indulge in all its fruity glory in the form of over 80 food and drink items that use boysenberry.

The spirit of the Knott family is celebrated with inventive and interesting bites, like a boysenberry brisket tater tots platter, jalapeno chips with boysenberry aioli sauce and a boysenberry carne asada pizza. For the berry blasted sweet tooth, their boysenberry bread pudding with crème anglaise will put the vanilla variety to shame. The all-day festival also brings in the latest in boysenberry fashions (that's a real thing!) a la a line of exclusive merchandise as well as live entertainment. Berry enthusiasts rejoice!

There's a $56 dollar chicken sandwich to celebrate 100 years of Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinner Restaurant

Even a hundred years after those first berries were first planted, Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinner Restaurant is a true American original with a cultural impact that goes well beyond that roadside farm stand. As part of the property's milestone century celebration, they continue to celebrate the woman behind it all: Cordelia Knott. With food serving as an integral part of that celebration, how else would they celebrate but with a line of chicken sandwiches? Known as the Ode to Cordelia, this is a more modern take on the plated poultry and includes a Nashville hot chicken sandwich as well as the Insta-worthy, sweet meets savory, glazed donut chicken sandwich.

Have you ever dropped over $50 on one sandwich? Now you can. Exclusive to the restaurant where it all began is a gigantic fried chicken sandwich suited for the most devout Mrs. Knott's fan that's ready to shell out big money for a taste of history. Dubbed "the proud bird," shall you choose to accept this challenge a shareable sandwich is comprised of a giant hand-breaded chicken breast that's served on a 12-inch Hawaiian bun and then garnished with — wait for it — another chicken sandwich in the form of a mini slider. Further proving, you can have your history, and eat it too.