Archive for the ‘Restaurants’ Category

Cafeteria fare

Thursday, May 11th, 2017

On his way back to Waco, Texas, following an Easter weekend visit to Little Rock, my oldest son stopped at Bryce’s Cafeteria in Texarkana for lunch.

It’s a stop he has been making most of his life.

My wife is from south Texas (Kingsville, Alice, Corpus Christi). On trips to visit her relatives, we usually timed our departures so we could eat at the venerable Texarkana restaurant, which closed its doors at the end of April after 86 years of serving customers.

When I was a boy in Arkadelphia, Hot Springs was usually the first choice if we were going out of town for a special meal.

If shopping and doctors’ visits were involved, Little Rock was the destination.

But to change things up from time to time, my parents would choose Texarkana since both of them loved eating downtown at Bryce’s.

Downtown Texarkana was a busy place in those days. That was before restaurants and retailers moved north to Interstate 30. Shoppers from southwest Arkansas, east Texas, northwest Louisiana and southeast Oklahoma flocked to downtown businesses such as the Belk-Jones and Dillard’s department stores.

Earl Jones Sr., who was born in North Carolina where the Belk chain was founded, moved to Texarkana in October 1947 to open Belk-Jones.

Meanwhile, William T. Dillard, who had been born at Mineral Springs in 1914, opened his first store at Nashville in Howard County in February 1938. He sold the Nashville store in 1948 and moved his family to Texarkana after purchasing a 45 percent interest in Wooten’s Department Store. In 1949, Dillard purchased the remaining 60 percent of Wooten’s.

Michael Barone and Grant Ujifusa once described Texarkana in the “Almanac of American Politics” as the heart of “populist country, a place where farmers producing cotton and other crops felt themselves at the mercy of Dallas cotton brokers, Wall Street financiers and railroad magnates who were grabbing all the gains of their hard work. Outside Texarkana, in a landscape littered with small houses and lazily winding rivers, there was little protection from the sun and wind, and precious little ornament; the reservoirs and motels and shopping centers one sees there now are signs of an affluence still only beginning to penetrate what was a zone of subsistence if not poverty.”

Bryce’s fed those who came to Texarkana from the small towns of Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. The cooking was consistent, and it was good.

As my son paid his bill that Monday following his final meal at Bryce’s, he told the cashier of his first visit there. Like a lot of smart, high-strung boys, he was slow in getting potty trained. Austin was obsessed in those days with trains and airplanes, and my mother came up with an idea. She told Austin that if he would get potty trained, the two of them would take a trip on a real train.

It worked, though it was a short journey. They boarded an Amtrak train at Arkadelphia and took it only as far as Texarkana. My father raced down Interstate 30 in his Oldsmobile and picked them up at the Texarkana depot. The three of them then had a big lunch at Bryce’s. My parents later told me that Austin slept soundly on the way back to his grandparents’ home.

“We’ve been hearing a lot of stories along those lines,” the cashier told Austin, who’s now 24.

Bryce Lawrence opened his cafeteria in 1931 during the Great Depression. It remained downtown until February 1989 when it moved near Interstate 30 and Summerhill Road on the Texas side of the state line.

A Chicago Tribune writer once declared that Bryce’s “may have better food for the money than anyplace on earth.”

During his 1992 presidential campaign, Ross Perot, a Texarkana native, was asked to list his favorite restaurant in the world. His choice was Bryce’s, of course.

I would always start meals there with tomato aspic (I suspect I was the youngest person to purchase that old-school dish) and finish with egg custard pie in honor of my mother, who enjoyed both.

Jane and Michael Stern, who became famous for the “Roadfood” series of books, once wrote of Bryce’s: “Going through the line takes you past an array of swoonfully appetizing food — food that has made this place famous since it opened for business in 1931. There are more vegetables than most Yankees see in a year — purple-hulled peas, fried green tomatoes, red beans, turnip greens cooked with chunks of ham and a full array of potatoes, cheesy macaroni casseroles, rice casseroles, buttered cauliflower, sauced broccoli, etc.

“Among the main courses, fried chicken is stupendously crunchy and big slabs of sweet ham are sliced to order. For dessert, we like Karo-coconut pie, hot cobbler with an ethereal crust and banana pudding made with meringue and vanilla wafers. The entire experience is a culinary dream, including a smartly uniformed dining room staff (to help old folks and invalids with their trays, and to bus tables) and servers who address all men as ‘sir’ and ladies as ‘ma’am.'”

One of their readers wrote: “I’m not customarily a fan of cafeterias. Multiples of food behind glass covers bring back not-so-pleasant memories of school cafeterias and unappetizing food. But Bryce’s could make a convert out of me. Here everything looks so good that it is hard to make a choice. We were hungry so it was tempting to order one of everything. As it was, we selected a gracious plenty. The fried chicken is very good and still crisp even though it has been sitting under a heat lamp for a while. The turnip greens, black-eyed peas, squash and coleslaw are well-seasoned and delicious.”

Richard Lawrence, the son of Bryce Lawrence, died in February at age 65.

His obituary read in part: “Richard was born in Texarkana, Arkansas. He went to St. James Day School and Allen Academy. He graduated from Texas High School, where he was an outstanding football player and loved his days playing football for Watty Myers. He went on to play college football at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches, Texas. After that, he earned a culinary degree from Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. … Richard was best known for his role in Bryce’s Cafeteria, the family business that was started in 1931 by his father, Bryce Lawrence. He worked there tirelessly for most of his life with his brother, Bryce.

“Richard loved and was loved by all his employees, some of whom worked for Richard and his father for more than 50 years. They all loved to call him Big Daddy. Richard adored his family and extended family, especially the time he spent with them at his cabin at Lake Greeson, teaching all his nieces and nephews how to water ski. Richard’s favorite thing was to cook and entertain, which usually meant telling funny stories about himself. But more than anything else he enjoyed spending time with his family at their summer home in Charlevoix, Mich.”

Shortly before Bryce’s closed, Greg Bischof of the Texarkana Gazette wrote about two veteran employees.

“Leo McCoun and Pearlene Jennings loved working for Bryce’s Cafeteria so much they each worked there for more than a half-century,” he wrote. “Even though the cafeteria will see its last tray full of cuisine slide before the cashiers at the end of April, McCoun’s and Jennings’ memories of working there will likely live on as long as they do. For 86 years, one of Texarkana’s most renowned eateries, founded by local resident Bryce Lawrence in 1931, not only pulled off an entrepreneurial miracle by surviving all 10 years of the Great Depression, it went on to become one of the most popular non-franchised businesses in the region, attracting customers from as far away as Dallas.

“Both McCoun and Jennings were not only eyewitnesses but major contributors to that success — as well as being veteran employees long enough to work at both the cafeteria’s original and current locations. For McCoun, born in 1935 and raised in Lewisville, his employment started Nov. 10, 1958, at Bryce’s original setting at 215 Pine St. with a starting income of $15 a week.”

McCoun told Bischof: “Guys got $15 a week while the girls got $12.50. I loved every one of my jobs here. I enjoyed all 58 years because I just liked being around people. Moving to the north side of town was different and a good move because Interstate 30 pulled business northward, but I think I will always like the look of the old place we had at 215 Pine. It just had a vintage atmosphere about it. At the time we were downtown, there was only one other cafeteria nearby, and that was in Wake Village.

“Bryce’s was a popular place the whole time. We had customers from as far away as Nashville, Ashdown, El Dorado, Magnolia, Camden and, yes, even as far away as Dallas. I got to know customers that were as young as five years old. Now they have grown up and have had children and grandchildren of their own. I got to know so many families and customers from all over. I’ll never forget this. I’m 81 years old, and it’s finally time to retire.”

Bischof wrote: “McCoun, who was 23 years old at the time, began as a pot washer, which he did for three years before becoming a silverware roller for another three years. He eventually became a dining room cleaning attendant as well as an occasional meat slicer in the customer serving line. He still performed both those tasks when the cafeteria made its move from 215 Pine St. to its current location near Interstate 30 in February 1989. Starting in 1996, McCoun became the dining room manager.”

Jennings began working at Bryce’s in May 1965.

“As a 17-year-old Macedonia High School student, she was looking for part-time work as a waitress during the summer of 1965,” Bischof wrote. “Upon graduating the following year, she went full time and made a career of it.”

Jennings told the newspaper: “I started out getting paid $17 a week as take-home pay, which came in a brown envelope. We had an upstairs as well as a downstairs dining room, and we helped customers carry their trays upstairs. I stayed with Bryce’s because I just liked the place, all the friendly customers and the employees. Waitressing was my only job. I loved both locations, but I do miss going up those stairs downtown. I think I got to know hundreds, maybe thousands, of customers through the years.”

Mother’s Day was the busiest day of the year, followed by Easter.

“Both of those holidays drew the crowds,” Jennings said.

Bryce’s is gone, but at least we still have Franke’s at two locations in Little Rock.

But death also has rocked the Franke family of Little Rock. Bill K. Franke died in Little Rock just 12 days after Richard Lawrence died in Texarkana.

Franke’s obituary noted that he “spent the majority of his life serving Arkansas food to Arkansas people at his family business, Franke’s Cafeteria. He was known for his strong presence and was the definition of honor and integrity. … A man of many hobbies, he loved most what nature had to offer. Astronomy, hunting, fishing, cooking and riding motorcycles were among his favorites.”

The death came just more than three months after his daughter, Christen Franke, died suddenly at age 37.

Fortunately, Bill’s widow, Carolyn Cazort Franke, and other family members plan to keep the restaurants going.

Here’s how the Franke’s website describes the history of the company: “In 1919, C.A. Franke opened a doughnut shop on Little Rock’s West Capitol Avenue. After a few short years, it became a thriving business, and in 1922, Franke built a large bakery at 111 W. Third St. Soon a fleet of trucks, nicknamed ‘wife savers,’ could be seen delivering fresh baked goods door to door in neighborhoods throughout the city.

“In 1924, Franke opened the original Franke’s Cafeteria at 115 W. Capitol. The cafeteria was near the major department stores and businesses in downtown Little Rock, and the eatery prospered in this vital commercial area of downtown. A separate dining room was opened around the corner at 511 Louisiana and shared the same kitchen, preparing food for both locations. C.A.’s son, W.J. Franke, worked with his father and eventually became the second generation to run the cafeteria. W.J.’s son, Bill Franke, learned the business from his father and took the reins as the third generation to run the cafeteria in 1983.

“In 1960, the original cafeteria closed its doors but not before inspiring newer locations around the state. Franke’s has had many locations, including Hot Springs, Fort Smith, North Little Rock’s McCain Mall and Little Rock’s University Mall. Today the cafeteria has come full circle with a location on West Capitol in the Regions Bank building and our newest addition, the Market Place location on Rodney Parham.

“Some of Franke’s menu items are legendary, led by the eggplant casserole and egg custard pie. The sliced roast beef, candied sweet potatoes, hand-breaded fried okra and Karo-nut pecan pie continue to be customer favorites. Most recipes have remained unchanged from the originals and are often the subject of recipe duplication debates. The food line at Franke’s, with its array of cold dishes, steaming meats, assorted vegetables and mouthwatering desserts, has kept customers coming through the doors for many decades.

“Franke’s success and longevity are due to consistently serving good food at reasonable prices, a long history of staff who have served the people of Arkansas with a full heart and loyal customers who have become a part of our family. As an Arkansas tradition, Franke’s offers more than just a home-cooked meal. It’s a place for older generations to remember and a home for younger generations to begin making memories.”

I eat lunch often at the downtown Little Rock location and always study the framed black-and-white photo of Capitol Avenue looking west toward the state Capitol. It was taken decades ago. You can see the Franke’s sign on the left and the sign for the Capitol Theater on the right. There’s also a framed gavel that was used by Lee Cazort when he was the Arkansas House speaker in 1917, the Arkansas Senate president in 1921 and the state’s lieutenant governor from 1929-31 and 1933-37.

Cafeterias were once common across the state. My family often would eat in the 1960s at a downtown Arkadelphia cafeteria called Homer’s.

Now locally owned cafeterias are becoming hard to find.

Bryce’s is but a memory. Here’s hoping that Franke’s will flourish for many years to come.

 

Post to Twitter

The pizza man

Monday, May 8th, 2017

I was visiting with one of the civic leaders in Hot Springs recently when the subject turned to the rebirth of the Spa City’s downtown.

We began talking about a Brooklyn native who showed up in Hot Springs almost four years ago, hit the ground running and hasn’t slowed down since.

My lunch companion stated: “We’re lucky to have gotten that guy.”

“That guy” is Anthony Valinoti of DeLuca’s Pizzeria on Park Avenue.

Food enthusiasts across the state think he turns out the best pizza in Arkansas. Some have even proclaimed DeLuca’s to be among the best pizzerias in the country.

It’s quite a story for a former Wall Street banker who landed in Arkansas in 2013. At the time, he knew nothing about either Hot Springs or making pizzas.

I arrived at DeLuca’s prior to the 4 p.m. opening time on a recent Thursday. I mentioned that I had come from a lunch meeting that day, but the demonstrative Valinoti gave me a hug and still insisted on bringing me a Caesar salad along with several meatballs to snack on while we visited.

“I’m very, very lucky to have chosen this place,” he said in his thick New York accent. “I don’t think I could have made this work anywhere else. The people of Hot Springs simply refused to allow me to fail in those early days when I really didn’t know what I was doing.

“I’m not a chef. I’m a kid from a blue-collar family in Brooklyn. My style is to put my head down and get to work on whatever project I take on. I should have declared this a failed experiment and quit during the first year. But I couldn’t quit because I knew how many people in Hot Springs were pulling for us. I didn’t want to let anyone down. I’m still that way. If someone comes in here to eat, I want to make sure that we don’t let them down. I walk around the room asking them what they think. If they have a suggestion, I take it to heart.”

Valinoti, 54, decided as a child that he would one day work on Wall Street. His father was a truck driver and a policeman. Valinoti indeed worked on Wall Street for 13 years and made good money.

Something was missing, however.

Even though the paychecks were large, the work itself ceased to be rewarding. Valinoti quit his job and moved to Las Vegas. Though Sin City had its charms, Valinoti still wasn’t fulfilled. A friend from California, who developed shopping centers for a living, was visiting Las Vegas and said one day, “If it weren’t for my ex-wife, I would live in Hot Springs.”

The man told Valinoti about an old resort city in rural Arkansas that had, in a sense, been Las Vegas before there was a Las Vegas — casinos, floor shows, the works. He said that the downtown area of Hot Springs was a bit down on its luck but that the place had history, charm and hospitable people.

Valinoti was intrigued.

He booked a Southwest Airlines flight from Las Vegas to Little Rock the next morning, rented a car upon arrival and drove to Hot Springs. He got a room at the Arlington Hotel, walked down the street to drink at Maxine’s and soaked in the atmosphere.

“I knew immediately that I was home,” Valinoti said. “I couldn’t believe that I had never heard of this place. I was overcome by its charm and felt more relaxed than I had ever felt before. I knew within a few hours that I would move here and start a business.”

In cities across the country, Valinoti had found himself frustrated with the inability to find pizzas like the ones he grew up eating in Brooklyn. He’s quick to admit that he has a short attention span and needed a new project. Valinoti began experimenting with how to make Brooklyn-style pizzas, found space in a building on a stretch of Park Avenue that has seen better days and opened the doors of DeLuca’s with six tables on Nov. 22, 2013.

He admitted to me that he locked himself in the men’s room that first afternoon before the restaurant’s doors opened.

“I was terrified,” he said. “I couldn’t believe that I had the hubris to do this. The idea of feeding other people had sounded good as a general concept, but then I actually had to do it.”

Valinoti eventually unlocked the restroom door, came out and fed several hungry patrons that night. He continued to perfect his methods, especially the way he makes the dough. Within months, foodies across the state were talking about this new spot in Hot Springs.

Here’s how Stephanie Smittle began a wonderfully written feature on Valinoti in the Arkansas Times back in March: “Anthony Valinoti, owner of DeLuca’s Pizzeria at 407 Park Ave. in Hot Springs, thrives on the kind of volatility involved in making pizza, as he says, ‘the hard way.’ DeLuca’s has no freezer. It has no microwave, and it has no stand mixer — all standard equipment for reducing a restaurant’s margin of error and streamlining a production process. It has no dedicated room in which to ‘grow the dough’ (Valinoti’s words), and therefore no consistent way to sequester the fermenting mounds from the litany of things that can affect dough rise — humidity, the temperature outdoors, whether the yeast is feeling feisty that particular afternoon.

“‘If you treat it with a lot of respect, it can turn out well,’ Valinoi told me. ‘I’m not a chef. I don’t consider myself a chef. But a chef takes something that’s pretty much dead and reanimates it. Chefs are reanimators. This is what they do.’

“Valinoti is a storyteller and a gesturer. He cupped an imaginary globe of yeasty life in the air with hands covered in smudges of nonimaginary pizza dough, dusting my laptop and the table beneath it with fine flour at each firm conclusion. ‘When you put water, salt, flour and yeast in a bowl, it comes to life. And the idea behind what I’ve learned over the last there years is how do you harness that life?’

“As a kid, Valinoti would visit Di Fara Pizza in a Hasidic Jewish neighborhood on Brooklyn’s Avenue J, watching the revered Dom De Marco hunched over the counter, forming discs by hand and snipping basil over the finished pies with a pair of kitchen scissors.”

Valinoti told Smittle: “He has been doing what I guess we all try to emulate at some point. Nobody really understood what it was. It was just really that good.”

When the subject turned to his previous career, he told her: “Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to work on Wall Street. There was something prestigious about banking, especially in New York. And that’s what I gravitated towards. … I’m very lucky in that if I lock into something, I can get to be pretty good at it. You know, it may take me a minute, but my attention span is that of a gnat so you’ve got to lock me in, and you’ve got to lock me into a project that is way above my head. That makes me keep going. That makes me keep looking for answers.”

He seems to have found the answer to making great pizzas.

An earlier Arkansas Times review described DeLuca’s pizzas this way: “After making my selection from the menu, and a very short wait, my server placed the pie on my table. This thing was like a work of art. A rainbow of colors — red, orange, white and green. Pepperoni, onions, cherry tomatoes, shiitake mushrooms and fresh basil. I wasn’t sure if I should eat it or frame it.

“The first bite made me realize that this is what real pizza is. For those old enough to remember Pop Rocks candy, the candy that would pop and crack in your mouth, the sensation was the same. Only this time, instead of sweet candy flavor, what popped was the basil, the sauce, the fresh tomatoes and mushrooms, and the spicy pepperoni. The thin crust had a crisp texture to it, but a little chewy at the same time, very enjoyable. Everything has a flavor all its own, but it all comes together to make a flavor unlike any pizza I’ve had. Now you might say that this reaction was due to it being my first visit, but I assure you the reaction is the same on every visit, and there have been many, with many more still to come.”

The huge fire that consumed what remained of the oldest section of the Majestic Hotel just down the street occurred a few months after DeLuca’s opened. The power at the restaurant went out that Thursday night, and the street was blocked by emergency vehicles. But rather than being a setback to the neighborhood, the fire proved to be a wake-up call for Arkansans. People not only in Hot Springs but across the state realized that they had allowed a place that had once been the jewel of the South to deteriorate over a period of decades.

Feb. 27, 2014 — the night of the fire — was the beginning of the ongoing renaissance of downtown Hot Springs.

And DeLuca’s, which now draws customers from across the region, has been a key part of that renaissance.

The restaurant was full by 4:30 p.m. on the day I was there. I talked to a couple in a nearby parking lot who had driven from Little Rock to bring their granddaughter to DeLuca’s for the first time.

“I learn more about this city and love it more with each passing day,” Valinoti told me as I chewed on a meatball. “The Majestic fire was awful, but I saw hope and optimism in the wake of that event. Look at all of the buildings that are being sold downtown. Look at the developments that are now taking place. People said that I shouldn’t open a business on Park Avenue, but sometimes it takes an outsider to see what other people can’t see. Now there are people walking down here at night from the hotels on Central Avenue. They feel safe.

“I’m hoping to see more businesses on this street. I had a guy in here the other day who had ridden his motorcycle 112 miles just to eat here. Those kinds of stories keep me going.”

Like me, Valinoti hopes the city of Hot Springs will develop outdoor thermal pools on the Majestic site, which finally has been cleared of debris. He believes that will bring even more visitors his way.

Summing up the past four years, Valinoti said, “It’s serendipity that I’m in Hot Springs. You know, the fork in the road sometimes takes you to where you’re supposed to be.”

The restaurant is only open four days a week, which Valinoti calls the perfect schedule.

“I don’t think I could enjoy doing this seven days a week,” he said.

Valinoti lives on Lake Hamilton. He told me: “My friends have boats, and they love to take me out of the water. By Monday morning, after four days of this, I just want to be out on the lake. This is so much more satisfying to me than my work on Wall Street. My father wanted to kill me when I told him I was leaving Wall Street, but this was meant to be. There’s something beautiful about feeding people things they enjoy. And there’s still plenty of room for improvement.”

Post to Twitter

More hall of famers

Friday, March 24th, 2017

In the previous post, I focused on the 12 restaurants in the inaugural class of the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame.

There also were categories for the best food-themed event and the proprietor of the year.

The inductee in the best food-themed event category was the Cave City Watermelon Festival. In Cave City, they like to say that “Hope’s watermelons might be bigger, but ours are sweeter.”

This summer event has been taking place for almost four decades in the Arkansas Ozarks. There are concerts, car shows, parades, watermelon-themed games and, of course, lots of watermelons.

Other finalists in the food-themed event catergory were:

— The Gillett Coon Supper. The first coon supper was held at Stuttgart in 1933 but soon moved to Gillett. It has been put on by the Gillett Farmers’ and Businessmen’s Club since 1947. It’s a must-attend event for politicians. When the Gillett School District still existed, the January supper basically served as the school’s annual football banquet. The coon supper now raises funds for college scholarships for area students.

— The Bean Fest and Great Arkansas Championship Outhouse Races at Mountain View. This event is held each year during the final weekend of October. Teams begin cooking pinto beans and cornbread at dawn, and judging generally begins about 11:30 a.m. By the afternoon, the Great Arkansas Championship Outhouse Races are taking place with the winning team taking home the coveted Golden Toilet Seat.

— The World Championship Duck Gumbo Cookoff at Stuttgart. It’s an important part of the Wings Over The Prairie Festival, which is held each year right after Thanksgiving. The gumbo cookoff is probably the closest thing we have in Arkansas to a south Louisiana Mardi Gras celebration. It’s a true party as teams cook up gumbo for the hundreds of people fortunate enough to have tickets. This has become such a popular event that there’s a long waiting list for those who want booth space.

— The World Cheese Dip Championship at Little Rock. This event came about partially because of a documentary by Nick Rogers titled “In Queso Fever: A Movie About Cheese Dip,” which asserts that cheese dip was invented in Little Rock in 1935 by Mexico Chiquito owner Blackie Donnelly. Participants come from far and wide for the annual fall festival, and the attendance grows each year.

The winner for proprietor of the year was actually a group of proprietors. It’s a well-deserved honor since this group of men changed dining in Arkansas forever.

With the opening of Jacques & Suzanne atop what’s now the Regions Bank building in downtown Little Rock in the 1970s, the Continental Cuisine team of Paul Bash, Ed Moore, Louis Petit and Denis Seyer set the stage for other quality restaurants such as Graffiti’s, 1620, the Purple Cow and Alouette’s. Their former employees opened additional restaurants such as Café St. Moritz and Andre’s. These men were to restaurateurs what Frank Broyles was to assistant football coaches who went on to become head coaches: The base of a tree with many limbs.

The other three finalists in this category were:

— Capi Peck of Little Rock. She grew up in the hospitality business since her grandparents owned the Sam Peck Hotel downtown. The restaurant at the Sam Peck was one of the few places in those days where Arkansans could enjoy fine dining. It was among the reasons that Winthrop Rockefeller called the Sam Peck’s penthouse home for a time in the early 1950s after moving to Arkansas from New York. Peck has long run Trio’s in Little Rock, cooking local ingredients with an international flair.

— Joe St. Columbia of Helena. St. Columbia, the grandson of Sicilian immigrant Pasquale St. Columbia, is known across the South for his tamales. His grandfather obtained tamale recipes from Mexican laborers in the Delta and added an Italian touch. Joe St. Columbia once shipped the tamales across the country. Now, you have to go to Helena on a Friday or a Saturday and buy them from the trailer he operates.

— Scott McGehee of Little Rock. A descendant of famed Arkansas cook Ruby Thomas of the Red Apple Inn on Eden Isle, McGehee was born in Fayetteville and raised in Little Rock. His father, Frank McGehee, was a partner in the famous Little Rock restaurants Juanita’s and the Blue Mesa Grill. Scott McGehee worked as a line chef at the internationally known Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., and later returned to Arkansas to open the Boulevard Bread Co. He’s now a partner in the company that operates ZaZa, Big Orange, Local Lime, Lost 40 Brewing and Heights Taco & Tamale Co.

Congratulations to them all. They’re all hall of famers in my book.

Post to Twitter

Arkansas now has a Food Hall of Fame

Tuesday, March 14th, 2017

Dressed in her Sunday best, Rhoda Adams sat in the lobby of the Ron Robinson Theater in Little Rock’s River Market District on a stormy Tuesday night, flanked by Lake Village Mayor JoAnne Bush and former state Rep. Sam Angel.

Bush and Angel had made sure that the lady commonly known as Miss Rhoda, who doesn’t get out of southeast Arkansas much these days, was in the capital city for the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame’s first induction ceremony.

The Food Hall of Fame, a project of the Department of Arkansas Heritage, was about to induct three restaurants from a list of 12 finalists, and Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales of Lake Village was on that list.

Arkansans nominated 59 restaurants in the inaugural year. A committee of food experts narrowed the list down to Bruno’s Little Italy of Little Rock, Craig’s Bar-B-Q of DeValls Bluff, Doe’s Eat Place of Little Rock, Feltner’s Whatta-Burger of Russellville, Franke’s Cafeteria of Little Rock, Jones Bar-B-Q Diner of Marianna, the Kream Kastle of Blytheville, the Lassis Inn of Little Rock, McClard’s Bar-B-Q of Hot Springs, Neal’s Café of Springdale, Rhoda’s and Sims Bar-B-Que of Little Rock.

Adams’ restaurant was one of the three inducted, and she made her way to the stage to receive her award from Gov. Asa Hutchinson. The other two restaurants in the inaugural class are the Lassis Inn and Jones Bar-B-Q Diner. The three establishments specialize in tamales and country-style plate lunches (which Adams serves), fried fish and barbecue — staples of the Arkansas diet, especially in the Delta.

All three restaurants happen to be owned by African-Americans, a powerful symbol of how food can bring people together in a state that too often during its history was divided along racial lines.

People come from across the Delta — not only Arkansas but also Louisiana and Mississippi — to eat with Adams. She has been serving her special blend of tamales for more than 40 years, often selling them out of the back of her car along U.S. Highway 65 in Dumas, McGehee and other southeast Arkansas cities. Private planes have been known to land in Lake Village, shuttling executives from Little Rock for lunch at Rhoda’s.

Adams, 78, was hesitant to get into the business of making tamales. She once told a reporter: “My husband’s auntie asked me about us doing it, but I never wanted to do any hot tamales. We started doing about 25 dozen a day. I kind of liked it, but I didn’t like it without a machine.”

Her husband eventually bought her a machine to craft the tamales. Adams is one of 15 children. She has almost 60 grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Adams also treats those who love her cooking like family, regaling them with stories as they eat lunch.

The famous food writer Michael Stern once noted: “Beyond tamales, the menu is a full roster of great, soulful regional specialties. For fried chicken or pigs feet, barbecue or catfish dinner, you won’t do better for miles around. Early one morning, Rhoda made us a breakfast of bacon and eggs with biscuits on the side. Even this simple meal tasted especially wonderful. Rhoda is one of those gifted cooks who makes everything she touches something special. We’ve always considered Arkansas one of America’s top seven pie states (along with Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Virginia, Texas and Maine). Rhoda’s pies are proof. She makes small individual ones. … Her sweet potato and pecan pie are world class.”

Next up, the Lassis Inn.

In a small wooden building near where Roosevelt Road passes under Interstate 30 in Little Rock, Elihue Washington Jr. cooks some of the state’s best fried fish (catfish and buffalo) at the Lassis Inn. The restaurant’s roots date back to 1905 when Joe Watson began selling sandwiches out of his house. He later added fish to the menu, and sales soared.

In 1931, Watson literally moved the building that housed his business to East 27th Street and named it the Lassis Inn. In 1957, the building had to be moved back 12 feet to allow room for the construction of what’s now Interstate 30.

Washington bought the business in 1990 and has been there almost every day since, cooking some of this state’s best buffalo ribs, catfish steaks and catfish filets. The Lassis Inn also has a fine selection of songs on its jukebox, though the sign on the wall notes that there’s “no dancing.”

Then there’s the barbecue shrine at Marianna.

Jones Bar-B-Q Diner has been a part of the Delta food culture for more than a century. The folks at the Southern Foodways Alliance believe it might be the oldest continuously operated black-owned restaurant in the South.

Current owner James Harold Jones says it started with his grandfather’s uncle. His grandfather and father continued the family tradition of slow-smoking pork over hickory, and Jones’ father moved to the current location in 1964. The methods for cooking the barbecue, preparing the slaw and mixing the sauce haven’t changed in more than a century. In 2012, the James Beard Foundation honored Jones Bar-B-Q Diner as one of its American Classics, making it the first Arkansas restaurant to earn a coveted Beard Award.

The award hangs on the wall adjacent to the counter where Jones stands to take orders.

The finely chopped pork, which is smoked just behind the small dining room, comes with a vinegar-based sauce and a mustard-based slaw. It’s served between two pieces of white bread rather than on buns.

The only change in the tiny cinderblock room since the award was presented almost five years ago is that Jones added a guestbook to record the many states from which barbecue aficionados hail. Jones only smokes so much meat each day. When it’s gone, it’s gone, and that’s often before 10 a.m. Some customers making the barbecue pilgrimage to Marianna now arrive as early as 7 a.m. to buy meat by the pound.

The first three Food Hall of Fame restaurants in Arkansas — Rhoda’s Hot Tamales, Lassis Inn and Jones Bar-B-Q Diner — tell us a lot about the culture of a state that has never received the national attention it deserves when it comes to its cuisine.

I can’t imagine a better trio for the inaugural induction class. And I have no doubt that this year’s other nine finalists will be inducted in the years ahead. They also are fine representatives of who we are as Arkansans.

Bruno’s, which is now on Main Street in Little Rock, has its roots in Italy, specifically Naples. Four brothers came to this country from Naples more than a century ago. They brought their style of cooking and baking to New York and Chicago.

One of the brothers was named Giovanni. His son Vincent (better known as Jimmy) was stationed at Camp Robinson during World War II. Jimmy Bruno returned to the state after the war and opened his Little Italy Café in the Levy neighborhood of North Little Rock. Bruno was as good an entertainer as he was a chef. He would spin pizza dough and toss it high into the air to the delight of his customers. He was known to sing loudly in the kitchen. The restaurant has been in several locations through the years, but the recipes remain the same.

Doe’s, meanwhile, was the brainchild of entrepreneur George Eldridge. It opened in 1988. Eldridge, a pilot, had been flying friends for years to the original Doe’s in Greenville, Miss., for steaks and tamales. He paid the Signa family for the rights to use the Doe’s name in Little Rock.

The Little Rock Doe’s became more famous than the original in 1992. That’s because key staffers for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign began hanging out there on a nightly basis, and the media followed, turning out stories about Lucille Robinson’s work in the kitchen. One of the many photos on the walls of the restaurant features Eldridge and Robinson at Clinton’s presidential inauguration in January 1993.

Cafeterias once were far more common in the state than they are now, and Franke’s helped pioneer the concept in 1924. C.A. Franke opened a doughnut shop on Capitol Avenue in Little Rock in 1919 and built a large bakery on Third Street three years later. His fleet of bakery trucks could be seen across the city as the drivers made home deliveries.

The cafeteria opened downtown near the city’s major department stores and became a favorite of those who worked in the stores and those who shopped downtown. Franke’s, which now has two locations in Little Rock, once had locations in other Arkansas cities. You can still get the cafeteria’s well-known eggplant casserole and egg custard pie.

The other Little Rock restaurant on the list, Sims, dates back to 1937 when Allen and Amelia Sims opened their establishment. After working at the 33rd Street location for many years, Ron Settlers took over the restaurant and expanded the concept to multiple locations. Sims has been featured on numerous television programs and in national magazines through the years.

In Russellville, Feltner’s Whatta-Burger is not to be confused with that Texas-based chain. Bob Feltner once owned the Wonder-Burger near the Arkansas Tech University campus but decided to move over to the Arkansas Avenue portion of Arkansas Highway 7 so he could take advantage of the heavier traffic. Customers have been lining up for the burgers and generous portions of fries there since Thanksgiving Day 1967. The Whatta-Burger has served several generations of Arkansas Tech students along with thousands of people making the trip to and from Fayetteville for University of Arkansas athletic events.

In Springdale, Neal’s Café has been a fixture since 1944. Housed in a distinctive pink building, it’s the place where politicians and business leaders gather for breakfast and where others go for dinners of country cooking such as pan-fried chicken and homemade pies. Neal’s is the type of place that once was common across Arkansas — a gathering spot that brings people together for lively conversations. Arkansas is worse off for the demise of such locally owned businesses. Thank goodness Neal’s is still going strong.

The Kream Kastle opened in July 1952 in the then-booming cotton center of Blytheville when Steven Johns began selling hot dogs out of a small building with only window service. One early ad for the Kream Kastle read: “Take home a sack of six for $1.”

In 1955, Johns added a barbecue pit. The drive-in restaurant is now best known for its pork barbecue sandwiches, referred to in Blytheville as “pig sandwiches.” The restaurant is operated by Johns’ daughter, Suzanne Johns Wallace, and her husband, Jeff Wallace.

The Kream Kastle ranks high on my list of favorite barbecue places in the state, as does Craig’s in DeValls Bluff. In 1947, Lawrence Craig and his brother Wes opened Craig Brothers Café in that community along the White River. Lawrence Craig had learned to cook on a boat on the Mississippi River, and word of his skill at producing fine barbecue soon had people traveling to Craig’s from as far away as Little Rock to the west and Memphis to the east.

As far as national notoriety, McClard’s just might be the most famous Arkansas restaurant of them all. Bill Clinton grew up nearby, and the national media produced a number of stories on McClard’s during Clinton’s eight years as president.

The McClard family was running a tourist court in the 1920s that also included a gas station and a small diner specializing in barbecued goat. A guest at the tourist court was unable to pay his bill but offered instead the recipe for what he claimed was the world’s best barbecue sauce. The family accepted the recipe in lieu of cash payment, made a few changes to it through the years and ended up with a restaurant where waits for seats are common even during the middle of the afternoon. A fourth generation of the McClard family is now working at the restaurant, which is sure to be a future inductee into the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame.

Post to Twitter

March in the Spa City

Wednesday, February 15th, 2017

The month of March approaches.

It’s a month that has become prime time for tourism in Hot Springs.

The weather warms, and the crowds grow at Oaklawn Park. The crab apple trees bloom, and the infield opens.

The city hosts 14 state championship high school basketball games (seven girls’ games and seven boys’ games) during a three-day period early each March (March 9-11 this year).

And thanks to the imagination and promotional ability of Steve Arrison, who heads Visit Hot Springs, the city’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade is now among the top events of its type in the country. With the parade falling on a Friday night this year, record crowds are expected to fill the streets downtown if the weather cooperates.

Adding to the excitement is the opening of The Waters, a boutique hotel across Central Avenue from Bathhouse Row. Renovation work on the historic Thompson Building, which will house the hotel, began in October 2015. More than $8 million later, 62 rooms are ready for guests from across the region.

“I had no idea when we started this how long it takes to build a hotel or to remodel a 100-year-old building,” Robert Zunick, one of the three partners in the project, told the Hot Springs National Park Rotary Club last month. “It took nine months to negotiate the sale. Once we owned the Thompson Building, it took 16 months to close the financing. We’re 15 months on the construction now.”

Zunick, a Hot Springs financial adviser, teamed up with veteran Spa City architects Bob Kempkes and Anthony Taylor to create The Waters. The work of Kempkes and Taylor can be seen around town, especially their beautiful renovation of the Ozark Bathhouse on the other side of Central Avenue.

The three men considered hundreds of potential names for the hotel before deciding on one.

Zunick said: “We really wanted to settle in on the essence of what really ties everything together, the reason all of those people came to Hot Springs in the first place, and all of this kind of boils down to one thing — the waters that we’ve been blessed with here in the national park.”

The Thompson Building was constructed in 1913. It has housed everything from a hotel to gift shops to apartments to doctors’ offices through the decades. A century ago, the term “taking the waters” was common in this country, and the Thompson was built to serve those who came to the Spa City for that reason.

Zunick said construction crews found a hotel receipt from 1949. He told the Rotarians: “They spent two nights at the Thompson Hotel for $16 a night. We’re going to be a little bit higher than that.”

Chris Wolcott, the hotel’s general manager, said the renovation resulted in a facility in which “not a single one of the rooms is like the other. We have different sizes. We have different layouts. … We have exposed brick walls and bench-seat windows.”

The Thompson Building also is the home of the recently opened fine-dining venue known as The Avenue. Casey Copeland, the former chef at So Restaurant-Bar in the Hillcrest neighborhood of Little Rock, is at the helm of the restaurant.

Copeland decribes himself as a person who “eats, sleeps and breathes food. We want to work with the community, local artisans and local farmers and bring Hot Springs something that I don’t think is here, a whole new dining experience.”

Within the next year, a rooftop bar and an outdoor garden will be added to the mix.

In addition to attracting more tourists, business leaders in Hot Springs hope to attract talented new residents who like living in an urban environment. Quality restaurants like The Avenue, brew pubs such as the one across the street in the Superior Bathhouse, art galleries and entertainment venues are the type of amenities that attract residents who enjoy urban loft living.

If Zunick, Kempkes and Taylor are successful with the businesses in the Thompson Building, I have no doubt that outside investors with even deeper pockets will follow with renovations of the Medical Arts Building, the Howe Hotel, the Wade Building, the Velda Rose Hotel, the Vapors Club and other downtown structures that are empty and waiting on saviors.

There’s still so much potential there.

A report on Hot Springs compiled several years ago by an economic consulting firm out of Indianapolis noted: “One of Hot Springs’ greatest assets is its compact downtown district. A national park nestled within the central business district, four distinct urban neighborhoods, a prestigious high school, the convention center, the trailhead for the Hot Springs Greenway Trail and a number of hotels, restaurants and other tourist attractions all call downtown Hot Springs home.

“Like most downtowns, Hot Springs has a variety of architectural styles representing different periods in the city’s history. Unlike many downtowns, though, the architecture in Hot Springs is especially interesting due to the unusual collection of bathhouses on Bathhouse Row, an art deco high-rise structure that was once the tallest building in the state and several large structures such as the Arkansas Career Training Institute (the former Army-Navy Hospital) and the Arlington Hotel, which dominate the view from several vantage points along the downtown streets.”

I’m reminded of a statement that Courtney Crouch of Hot Springs made during a National Park Rotary Club meeting at the Arlington Hotel a couple of years ago. Crouch is a devoted historic preservationist whose Selected Funeral & Life Insurance Co. makes its home in the city’s ornate old post office building on Convention Boulevard.

“I encourage you to go out when you leave here and look at the buildings,” he told those gathered at the Arlington that day. “The Thompson Building is one of the finest architectural treasures there is. The same thing can be said about the Medical Arts Building. And what a structure the old Army-Navy Hospital is.

“We’re on a new path. We’re seeing a lot of things develop. We’re headed in a new direction. I hope we can see this become the great American spa it was back around the turn of the century.”

Crouch has made numerous trips through the years to Saratoga Springs in upstate New York, a resort that attracts the rich and famous from New York City each August in search of cooler temperatures and thoroughbred racing.

He told me: “You know, Hot Springs has more to work with from an architectural standpoint than Saratoga Springs has.”

There was a time when Hot Springs called itself “the Saratoga of the South.”

With more upscale hotels, restaurants, spas and retailers, why can’t downtown Hot Springs attract people with money to spend from the booming Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex (it’s less than a five-hour drive away) just as Saratoga Springs attracts people from New York City?

With the development of the Thompson Building in downtown Hot Springs, the first domino has fallen.

It will be interesting to see if others follow.

Post to Twitter

Along U.S. Highway 82

Thursday, July 7th, 2016

The primary mission on the last Saturday in June was to make it to the Purple Hull Pea Festival and World Championship Rotary Tiller Race in Emerson so Paul Austin and I would have plenty to talk about on our next segment of “Chewing The Fat With Rex And Paul” on 88.3 FM in Little Rock.

Mission accomplished.

Of course, Paul and I couldn’t be satisfied with just that.

Paul had never been to the original Burge’s in Lewisville (an establishment I frequented years ago when I was the sports editor of the Arkadelphia newspaper and would make regular trips south to Louisiana Downs), and neither of us had ever had dinner in Garland (some call it Garland City), the Catfish Capital of Southwest Arkansas.

We headed west on U.S. Highway 82 from Magnolia to Texarkana.

I like this area deep in south Arkansas, having grown up in Arkadelphia while making frequent trips to Magnolia for athletic events at either Magnolia High School or what’s now Southern Arkansas University. Arkadelphia’s Badgers and Magnolia’s Panthers were in the same district. SAU was in the old Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference with Ouachita Baptist University and Henderson State University. So we would drive to Magnolia often for football and basketball games, always stopping just off the downtown square for a meal at the Chatterbox and a warm greeting from the owner, Mr. Duke.

“Relative isolation and transportation difficulties have long been a problem for Columbia County,” my friend Mike McNeill writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Columbia is the only one of Arkansas’ 75 counties not situated on a river. The county’s creeks and bayous were more of an impediment than an aid to early travelers because they were too narrow and shallow to support water traffic. The swampy conditions of the upper Dorcheat Bayou in Columbia County did not allow for practical use by boats. Rain made travel conditions worse. Only the arrival of railroads made it possible for Columbia County residents to enjoy a dependable year-round transportation option.”

The first railroad to enter the county was the St. Louis, Arkansas & Texas Railroad in the fall of 1882. That railroad led to the creation of the towns of McNeil and Waldo.

“Cut off from the planned railroad, civic leaders in Magnolia resolved to have a spur line built to the city,” McNeill writes. “They pledged $6,000 in cash and property during a single meeting in 1881 and eventually raised more than $20,000 toward this goal. The branch was completed in 1883. Growth of railroads was also responsible for the creation of two Columbia County communities that remain incorporated today, Emerson and Taylor. The Louisiana & North West Railroad was built between Magnolia and points in Louisiana in 1899. The town of Emerson in the southeastern part of the county was created and later incorporated in 1905. There was a post office in Taylor years before the Louisiana & Arkansas Railroad was built through the southwestern portion of the county in the 1880s. The town was incorporated in 1913.”

Cotton and corn were the cash crops in the county. A group of businessmen formed the Magnolia Cotton Mill in 1928, and it was the county’s largest manufacturer for many years. True prosperity, however, came with the discovery of oil and gas fields in the late 1930s.

McNeill notes that the “employment situation had changed so drastically by 1942 that County Judge J.B. McClurkin issued a proclamation saying that all able-bodied men who did not have jobs would be arrested for vagrancy. … Magnolia grew steadily after World War II with the city’s population more than doubling between 1940 and 1960. Housing construction filled in the two miles between downtown Magnolia and the SAU campus to the north. This period also witnessed the construction of Magnolia’s two tallest buildings, the five-story McAlester Building and the five-story Magnolia Inn.”

There was even airline passenger service from 1953-62 from Trans-Texas Airways before production from the oil and gas wells began to decline and population growth slowed.

“While the importance of oil and gas drilling declined, a new natural resources industry arrived in the mid-1960s as chemical companies discovered the high bromine content of brine located thousands of feet beneath the earth’s surface,” McNeill writes. “Bromine is an element used in numerous chemical and manufacturing processes. On Jan. 18, 1966, Dow Chemical Co. broke ground for a bromine plant four miles west of Magnolia. A second plant soon followed (a joint venture of Ethyl Chemical Corp. and Great Lakes Chemical). Both plants were consolidated under the ownership of Albemarle Corp., which owns dozens of brine wells and pipelines that crisscross Columbia and Union counties.”

The timber industry also remains important in the area. We passed Deltic’s sawmill just south of Waldo on U.S. 82 before crossing the Dorcheat Bayou and heading into Lafayette County.

Lafayette is one of the state’s smallest counties from a population standpoint, having fallen from 16,934 residents in the 1930 census to 7,645 residents in the 2010 census. Cotton had once been king here, but pine trees now cover most of the county. Many residents live in either Stamps (1,693) or Lewisville (1,280).

Stamps, the childhood home of Maya Angelou, was a lumber town. Early settlers built a sawmill there soon after the Civil War that later was acquired by the Bodcaw Lumber Co.

“The area did not begin to flourish, though, until the St. Louis Southwestern Railway — commonly known as the Cotton Belt — extended a line across Lafayette County in 1882,” writes Steve Teske for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Hardy James Stamps came to Lafayette County from Georgia in 1880 to operate the lumber mill. When a post office was established at the settlement surrounding the mill in 1888, it was named for Stamps. The first postmistress at that location was Ella Crowell, Stamps’ daughter. The Louisiana & Arkansas Railroad was incorporated in March 1898 by William Buchanan of the Bodcaw Lumber Co. The town was initially home to the principal shops of the railway. Crossing the Cotton Belt, it extended south to Springhill, La. In 1902, the line was built north to Hope.”

The Bodcaw Lumber Co.’s sawmill was among the largest mills for yellow pine in the world. Its mill pond, Lake June, covered almost 80 acres. There was a company store. The Bodcaw Bank opened in 1903, and a newspaper began in 1905.

“The lumber business played out, and Stamps’ businesses began to relocate,” Teske writes.

When the lumber mill closed, Lake June was donated to the city of Stamps. Surface rights were then leased to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, which has long managed the lake.

The Game and Fish Commission announced that a substantial renovation of the lake will begin this month. Lake June will be drained in an effort to restore spillway structures, shoreline and fishing habitat. The spillway has been undermined to the point that the lake doesn’t stay full during dry periods. While the lake is empty, biologists will eliminate the aquatic vegetation that has choked the shallow areas of the lake for years.

“This lake has provided great fishing opportunities for the citizens of Lafayette County for 100 years, and we intend to make it even better for the next 100 years,” says Andy Young, the commission’s fisheries biologist supervisor.

A brief boost for the area came when a successful oil well was drilled near Stamps in 1952. That same year, Arkansas Power & Light Co. (now Entergy Arkansas) spent $6 million to add a 135,000-kilowatt generator to its gas-fired electrical generation facility.

Nearby Lewisville was incorporated in 1850. A courthouse had been built there nine years earlier. Cotton was doing well in the area at the time, so much so that black slaves outnumbered free whites in the county in the 1850 and 1860 census.

A new courthouse was built at Lewisville in 1890. Later courthouses were constructed in 1904 and 1940. Lewisville has some beautiful old brick buildings, several of which are on the National Register of Historic Places.

Lafayette County was carved out of  Hempstead County in 1827 with original borders being the Ouachita River on the east, Louisiana to the south, Hempstead County to the north and Texas on the west.

“The post-slavery era resulted in the dissolution of several huge plantations into small-acreage tracts owned and farmed by families,” Glynn McCalman writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “A few former slaves were included among the new landowners, though their share of the land was relatively small. … Land title abstracts of the era demonstrate the efforts of the large planters to retain their holdings with diminishing success. Families eagerly purchased, often with mortgages, small portions of the former plantations and sustained themselves with diversified production. Though cotton was the main cash crop, they also produced edible grains, hay for livestock, cane for sweetening and vegetable gardens.”

McCalman notes that farmers during most of the 1800s had “tried to rely on the Red River for heavy hauling, but they were hampered by the extensive and persistent logjam called the Great Raft. From time to time during the second half of the century, the raft was declared cleared, especially after the work of snagboat engineer Capt. Henry Shreve. But it continued to be a nemesis until the river was mostly replaced as a means of transportation by the railroad. Although the Cotton Belt rail system reduced the need from some retail stores in the county’s towns, better transportation increased the profitability of farming and timber harvesting. It also dramatically reduced travel time to Shreveport, Texarkana and elsewhere. Cotton was brought from the gins to the rails, and impressive sawmills rose by the tracks at Stamps, Frostville, Canfield, Arkana and other communities.”

Despite the county’s population losses, Burge’s in Lewisville is still going strong.

Alden Burge moved to Lewisville from Shreveport in 1953 to work in the oil business. He smoked turkeys in a backyard smokehouse on the weekends. On Friday nights in the fall when there were home football games, he would sell barbecued chickens, baked beans and slaw.

In 1962, Burge purchased a dairy bar near where Arkansas Highway 29 intersects with U.S. Highway 82. Barbecue, burgers and ice cream were on the menu. Barbecued goat, peppermint ice cream and even fireworks were sold for the Fourth of July.

In the 1970s, a Burge’s location was opened in the Heights neighborhood of Little Rock. It’s no longer owned by the Burge family but remains popular.

Here’s how Arkansas food writer Kat Robinson describes the offerings at Burge’s: “That smoked turkey is something that cannot be compared. The brine, the smoke, everything about the preparation of a Burge’s smoked turkey is meticulous — and the meat comes out so flavorful, it bears a resemblance to ham. Indeed many people I know — and I am one of them, imagine that — take their post-Thanksgiving or post-Christmas turkey carcass and utilize it for the seasoning in New Year’s Day peas. Salty, sweet, it’s addictive. … Turkey may be the overwhelming product Burge’s has given us (the website is smokedturkeys.com after all), but there’s so much more on the menu.

“I think the Lewisville location does the better burger, but that comes more from its dairyette roots. Likewise, I think the better ice cream is served in Lewisville. But the Little Rock location does have pimento cheese in its cooler and almost always has fried pies in the heated case.”

In the next installment, we’ll head west into Miller County.

Post to Twitter

The 1836 Club

Thursday, February 25th, 2016

The best thing for me when three business partners purchased the historic Packet House on Cantrell Road was that the large wooden RPM sign that misspelled the name of this Little Rock landmark finally came down.

Each morning as I would drive by that sign on the way to work, the old editor in me wanted to scream.

Others with a strong sense of Arkansas history told me that they felt the same way.

Mark Camp is an investment banker who worked as a trader for Crews & Associates of Little Rock until 2014.

Rod Damon is a Little Rock-based mortgage trader for the Bank of Oklahoma.

Jeremy Hutchinson is a state senator, attorney and business investor.

Over drinks at the bar of one of their favorite steakhouses — Arthur’s in west Little Rock — they would discuss how Little Rock needed a private dining club that served dinner. The Little Rock Club on the top floor of the Regions Building downtown serves lunch five days a week, but dinner is only offered about twice a month.

“Every city of significant size has something like this,” Camp says. “I began searching online for a location. At first, they were asking too much for the Packet House for us to make it work. When they lowered the price, we got involved. They spent $1.3 million on renovations back in 2012 so we won’t have to do much beyond some new flooring, painting, new art for the walls and leather furniture.”

The 1836 Club was born.

It’s a nod to history since 1836 was the year Arkansas became a state.

Few structures are more historic in the capital city than the Packet House, one of the 15 oldest buildings in Pulaski County.

“We could go in there and serve dinner tonight if we wanted to,” Hutchinson says. “It has a great kitchen, among the best in the state.”

And it’s about to have a great chef since the three partners hired Donnie Ferneau, who will shut down his Good Food on Main Street in North Little Rock to devote full time to the 1836 Club.

Ferneau will serve meals on the first floor, which will include a private dining room known as the Governor’s Room. The main dining area will be known as the Caucus Room.

The second floor will be the home of the Pilots’ Lounge, which will include large television screens for watching sporting events, pool tables and card tables. Fine cigars will be available upstairs in the Humidor Lounge.

Charter applications are still being accepted with an opening planned for later this spring. The partners make clear that this is not just a club for male Republicans. Both men and women — and people of all political persuasions — are being encouraged to join.

So how did the partners end up with a well-known chef such as Ferneau?

“He heard that we were going to do this and reached out to us,” Camp says. “He will let us worry about the business end of things, so now he will be able to do what he really likes to do — create, cook and cater.”

Hutchinson admits: “I never thought we would have a chance to get him.”

Icing on the cake, to use the cliché.

The house, built in 1869, has 12,000 square feet of space. A proposed menu in the private club application includes seared scallops, seared duck breast with jalapeno corncakes, braised short ribs and the like.

The house was built by Alexander McDonald, who was born in 1832 in Pennsylvania. McDonald was a driven man with a shrewd business sense. He headed west to the Kansas Territory in 1857 to seek his fortune. He and his brother ran a sawmill and later became bankers.

McDonald was living in Fort Scott, Kan., with his wife and two daughters when the Civil War began. He helped organize Union forces in the area but later resigned so he could make money as a supplier for Union troops. It was that effort that brought him to Fort Smith in the fall of 1863. He not only supplied the Union troops there but organized a bank.

Steven Teske picks up the story from there for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “Under the reign of McDonald and his partner, Perry Fuller, corruption at the fort was rampant, to the extent that Gen. James G. Blunt was widely regarded as subservient to the company directors. McDonald arrived in Little Rock not long after it had been taken by Union forces and, before the end of the war, McDonald had organized the Merchants National Bank in Little Rock, of which he was president. McDonald worked actively to rebuild the industry and economy of Little Rock and of the state of Arkansas after the Civil War. In addition to his banking efforts, he was also vice president of the Little Rock & Fort Smith Railroad and president of the Arkansas Bridge Co., which was organized to construct a bridge across the Arkansas River at Little Rock. This was one of at least three competing companies seeking both private investments and government funding. Their efforts in 1869-70 led indirectly to the construction of the Baring Cross Bridge in 1873.

“Later, McDonald also served as president of the Little Rock & Fort Towson Railroad. At one point, he was considered the richest man in Arkansas. … McDonald also served in the state’s constitutional convention of 1868. Following this convention, the newly assembled state Legislature named him, along with Benjamin Franklin Rice, to represent Arkansas in the U.S. Senate. McDonald and Rice were sworn in as senators on June 22, 1868, but McDonald’s term was to end at the conclusion of 1871. During his short term, McDonald’s greatest contribution was probably his support for the impeached President Andrew Johnson. Not only did McDonald vote against conviction, but he spoke to persuade other senators to do the same, allowing Johnson to complete his term.

“Although McDonald hoped to be re-elected by the Legislature to a full term in the Senate, politics back in Little Rock intervened. McDonald was associated with the Brindletail faction of the Republican Party, which was resisting the efforts of Gov. Powell Clayton to dominate state politics. When Clayton announced his intention to run for McDonald’s Senate seat, the Brindletails chose to cooperate, hoping to replace Clayton with Lt. Gov. James Johnson, one of their allies in state government. The resulting confusion ended with Clayton as senator, Ozra Hadley as acting governor, Johnson as secretary of state and McDonald outside of the government. Discouraged by his failure to continue in politics, McDonald sold his large house and eventually relocated to the New York area around 1874.

“McDonald continued to pursue his interest in railroads, and he was commissioned by President Chester Arthur in 1885 to examine the finances of the Northern Pacific Railroad. In 1900, McDonald was living in the New York area house of his daughter, Tacie Harper. McDonald died on Dec. 13, 1903, at his daughter’s house and was subsequently buried at Highland Cemetery in Lock Haven, Pa.”

The houses erected by McDonald and others during the Reconstruction period on the north side of Cantrell — then known as Lincoln Avenue — were built by men who had been Union supporters during the war. Because of that, the area became known as Carpetbaggers’ Row and Robbers’ Row.

The home McDonald built later was owned by William Wait, a president of Merchants National Bank, and Ann McHenry Reider, who moved in with her two daughters and their husbands. The husbands were twins, Tom and Robert Newton. The house would serve as the Newton family home for several decades.

In the 1940s, the name was changed to the Packet House as a nod to the packet boats that once plied the Arkansas River.

The house later was converted into apartments and fell into a period of decline.

The Packet House was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, rehabilitated and used for offices and a restaurant. It later became vacant and began deteriorating again, to the point that it was placed on the Historic Preservation of Arkansas’ (now Preserve Arkansas) list of the most endangered structures in the state in 2011.

The HPAA wrote that year: “The house, which is zoned for commercial use, has been vacant and for sale for several years. Recently, a prospective developer seeking to purchase the house applied for a permit to use the Packet House as a restaurant. This is a positive turn for the Packet House. However, years of vacancy have taken their toll on the house and the future of the building remains uncertain.”

The house was purchased, more than $1 million was spent and chef Wes Ellis opened his Packet House Grill in 2012.

By the spring of 2014, Ellis was out, and it was announced that James Beard Award nominee Lee Richardson would take over as executive chef and owner. Foodies across Arkansas (including yours truly) rejoiced that the New Orleans native would be returning to a Little Rock restaurant kitchen.

Richardson said at the time: “For more than six years, I’ve driven by the Packet House almost daily, and I’ve always felt like it fit my vision for the ultimate in fine dining in Little Rock. I came to Little Rock and took over a well-known and well-respected restaurant at Ashley’s, and that’s exactly what I’m excited to be doing at the Packet House.”

Unfortunately for central Arkansas diners, the deal fell through.

The Packet House Grill closed and the building was put up for sale. And we spent almost two years having to look at that misspelled for-sale sign.

 

Post to Twitter

Farewell Sno-White

Friday, February 6th, 2015

I received sad news Friday.

An Arkansas institution, Pine Bluff’s Sno-White Grill, will be closing.

But it was inevitable.

Bobby Garner is well past retirement age. Like so many independently owned Arkansas restaurants — think Shadden’s near Marvell — there’s nobody waiting in the wings when an owner retires or dies (as was the case with Wayne Shadden).

That’s why we need to enjoy these Arkansas classics while we still can.

Below is the story I wrote in 2009 for Roby Brock’s Talk Business magazine. I hope you enjoy it:

The newspaper clipping from the Pine Bluff Commercial is framed on the wall of Pine Bluff’s Sno-White Grill. The story is dated Nov. 29, 1991, and tells of a fire that broke out at Sno-White at 12:26 a.m. on a Thursday. It was Thanksgiving morning.

The article describes a devastating fire that destroyed the business at 310 E. Fifth Ave. downtown, a restaurant that the newspaper said had the reputation of serving the “best hamburgers in the state.”

“I don’t think I’ve gotten over the shock yet,” Sno-White owner Bobby Garner told the newspaper.

Then, he added: “I’m down, but I’m not out.”

Indeed.

Fast forward the clock almost 18 years, and you’ll find Garner behind the counter of a rebuilt Sno-White on a summer Friday morning. He’s serving as the short-order cook and still dishing out what many people consider Arkansas’ best hamburger.

Across this state, there are restaurants where the locals gather to drink coffee, catch up on the town’s gossip, discuss the previous day’s sports events and talk politics. But few of those gathering spots have the longevity of Sno-White, which was founded in 1936, one year before Walt Disney produced his first full-length animated classic, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

The chances are that if you’re in Sno-White, so is Bobby Garner.

“I’m the only one who has a key,” he says matter of factly as the ceiling fans whirl overhead.

He’s there six mornings a week at 5:30 a.m. and even comes in on Sunday mornings to clean up. The landmark restaurant is open from 6 a.m. until 3 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and from 6 a.m. until 9 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

And at the age of 73, Garner doesn’t show signs of slowing down.

“I checked with my board, and they said Sno-White doesn’t have a retirement plan,” he says, a sly grin crossing his face.

Of course, Bobby Garner is the board. His wife, Blanche, is still around to offer advice but doesn’t come to the restaurant often. From opening time until closing time, it’s Bobby’s show.

None of the coffee mugs match, which is part of the charm of a place like Sno-White. On the table where Garner sits down to visit there’s a mug that says “Sparkman Sparklers,” the name of a girls’ basketball team from Dallas County that was nationally known in the 1930s. It’s as if Sno-White has become the repository of south Arkansas history.

There used to be quite a few locally owned, full-service restaurants in Pine Bluff like Sno-White. But as the city has lost population and economic vitality through the years, their numbers have declined. Garner rattles off the names of the competitors that are now only memories. There was John Noah’s Restaurant over by the Norton Lumber Mill. There was the Wonderland. The Country Kitchen out on the Dollarway Highway is about the only comparable place to Sno-White these days.

Restaurants aren’t the only things disappearing in southeast Arkansas.

“Most of my friends have either died or moved,” Garner says. “There’s a void there.”

Still, Garner insists that despite the dramatically decreased population, business is good. The prime rib special for $14.95 on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights remains popular, as do the plate lunches. For $6.25 at lunch, you get an entrée and three vegetables. Garner lists main courses off the top of his head. Monday features pork chops or chicken and dressing. On Tuesday, it’s chicken and dumplings or grilled beef liver. The choices on Wednesday are fried chicken, baked ham or spaghetti and meat sauce. On Thursday, it’s chicken fried steak, chicken spaghetti or barbecued pork. Fridays feature salmon croquettes, fried catfish or hamburger steaks.

“We have to keep the Catholics happy on Friday,” Garner says of the two fish entrees.

He estimates that he sells between 150 and 180 plate lunches each day.

“I cooked 75 chicken fried steaks yesterday and sold them all,” he says on this Friday morning. “We have a lot of people come in on Tuesdays just for the liver. That’s hard to find in restaurants these days, and folks won’t fix that for themselves at home.”

Garner claims that he doesn’t have a favorite dish, though he’s quick to mention the cornbread salad: “You make it like you would make tuna salad. But instead of using tuna, you use cornbread.”

Mornings belong to the coffee-drinking regulars. There’s a 6 a.m., 7 a.m., 8 a.m., 9 a.m. and even a 10 a.m. shift.

Upon entering Sno-White, look immediately to your left and to the back of the room. You’ll see the famed Back Booth. It’s the one with political posters covering the walls behind it. There are posters for familiar Arkansas politicians — “I’m for Arkansas and Faubus,” “John McClellan for Senate,” “Dale Bumpers for Senate,” and even “Monroe A. Schwarzlose, Democratic Candidate for Governor, The Law and Order Candidate.”

Schwarzlose hailed from nearby Kingsland and ran for governor in the Democratic primaries of 1978, 1980, 1982 and 1984.

Of course, there’s a poster for Pine Bluff’s own Joe Holmes, who ran for governor in the Democratic primaries of 1990 and 2002. Holmes is among the regular coffee drinkers, usually a part of the 9 a.m. shift.

There are also local political signs such as “Buck Fikes for Municipal Judge” and “Dub Koenig for Justice of the Peace.” Fikes and Koenig are among the coffee drinkers.

“This is where the decisions are made,” Koenig says on his way out the door. “I’ve been coming in here for 30 years and have seen all of the famous Arkansas politicians in here at one time or another.”

Bill Clinton even came in as president to have one of Bobby Garner’s hamburgers.

“When I left the night before, there was a car across the street with two guys in it,” Garner says. “They were watching the restaurant. I came back early the next morning, and these two guys were still in the car. The police later began blocking the streets several blocks away in every direction. If you were already in here, you could stay. But nobody else could come in. There was one guy over in a booth that the Secret Service thought might be with the media. I asked him, and he said he was. He gave me no problems when I told him the president’s visit was closed to the media. He left.”

Garner doesn’t remember which hamburger the president had.

There’s the Hutt Special, named after the owners of the Hutt Building Material Co. over on Alabama Street.

There’s also the Perdue Special, named after the owners of the Perdue Co., which was Pine Bluff’s largest office products and commercial printing company before being sold.

Garner, who grew up 18 miles to the west of Pine Bluff at Grapevine in Grant County, jokes: “When I was coming up in Grapevine, I thought I might be president. I never thought I would cook a hamburger for one.”

Garner purchased the Sno-White Grill on Feb. 15, 1970, from Roy Marshall, who had owned the restaurant the previous 27 years. Garner never dreamed he would own the place so long.

“It just sort of happened,” says Garner, who also served on the Jefferson County Quorum Court for 14 years.

A number of former Pine Bluff residents make it a point to stop by Sno-White when they’re back in town. They include Paul Greenberg, who won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing at the Commercial and raised his family in Pine Bluff before moving to Little Rock and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 1992. Greenberg has described Sno-White in print as “my favorite diner.”

In June 1996, when “The NewsHour” on PBS wanted to discuss the felony conviction and impending resignation of then-Gov. Jim Guy Tucker and its effect on average Arkansans, Bobby Garner was among the first people interviewed.

Garner doesn’t know how the restaurant got the name Sno-White, but he once had figures representing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs attached to the outside of the building. Those came off the day Garner received a visit from a local lawyer who had been hired by the Walt Disney Co. to ask for royalty payments.

Among the notable things in the restaurant these days is what might be one of the few remaining Lou Holtz dolls. There’s also a cardboard cutout of John Wayne that looks out over the dining room.

“I haven’t been broken into since I hired him,” Garner says of the Wayne cutout.

Behind the Wayne cutout is a framed ad for the Sno-White from 1939.

Plate lunches were 20, 25 and 30 cents.

The phone number was four digits — 1320.

And the owner must have just hired the most popular waitress in town since the ad proclaimed: “Martha Mae Foust has joined our staff and will welcome her friends here.”

Garner has seven employees these days. One of his waitresses has been with him almost a quarter of a century. He has a cook who has been working there almost 30 years. Garner picks her up shortly after 5 a.m. each day on his way to the restaurant.

James Sapp first visited Sno-White for breakfast in 1958, just after he had moved to Pine Bluff as a 19-year-old from Mobile, Ala., in order to take a job with International Paper. After 51 years in Pine Bluff, Sapp is moving to Mayflower to be near his children. He finishes his breakfast and says he will miss Sno-White.

And what about that Thanksgiving Day fire back in 1991?

Garner began work the next morning rebuilding the restaurant.

“We took Christmas morning off,” he says. “We worked that afternoon.”

The restaurant reopened Feb. 14, 1992. This Arkansas institution hasn’t missed a beat since.

Post to Twitter

The great Arkansas Delta food tour

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

The troops gathered at 8 a.m. on Good Friday in the parking lot of the Clinton Presidential Center along the banks of the Arkansas River in Little Rock.

The goal: To sample as much Delta barbecue as possible in one day with some catfish and tamales thrown in for good measure.

I was joined by Denver Peacock, Gabe Holmstrom, Jordan Johnson and Jason Parker for an excursion that would take us more than 400 miles and allow us to eat at 10 places before dusk. Yes, we did it all in one day.

We began with the fried catfish at the Wilson Café in the unique Arkansas community of Wilson in southern Mississippi County.

We warmed up for the barbecue part of the agenda at the Hog Pen along the Great River Road — U.S. Highway 61 — a couple of miles south of Osceola.

We then headed to Blytheville, the barbecue capital of Arkansas, to sample pig sandwiches (that’s what they call them in Blytheville) from five places — the Dixie Pig, the Kream Kastle, Penn’s, the trailer in the parking lot of the Hays store (that’s how everyone in Blytheville refers to it — I don’t think it has a formal name) and the Razorback carryout trailer.

The next barbecue sandwich was from Woody’s at the intersection of Arkansas Highway 14 and U.S. Highway 49 at Waldenburg, another east Arkansas dining hot spot.

We made our way from there to The Tamale Factory at Gregory in Woodruff County to visit with George Eldridge (best known as the owner of Doe’s in downtown Little Rock) while sampling tamales, fried shrimp and boiled shrimp. We had no room left for George’s steaks at that point.

Our final stop was at the legendary Bulldog in Bald Knob for strawberry shortcake, which is only served in the spring. Cars were lined up onto the highway that Friday night as people from all over White County waited to purchase shortcake.

In between all of the eating, we managed to:

— Walk around the former company town of Wilson

—  Read the historic markers and drop by the museum on the courthouse square at Osceola

— Head out to the banks of the Mississippi River at Armorel

— Visit Dyess to check on the restoration work being done there by Arkansas State University

— Check out the beautiful Poinsett County Courthouse at Harrisburg

Back in January, the town of Wilson was featured in The New York Times due to the efforts of Gaylon Lawrence Jr. to restore it to its past glory.

“The little farm towns here in Delta cotton country spin by, each rusting grain silo and boarded-up discount store fading into the next,” Kim Severson wrote. “Then, seemingly out of nowhere, comes Wilson, a collection of Tudor-style buildings with Carrara marble on the bank counter, a French provincial house with Impressionist paintings hanging on the walls and air-conditioned doghouses in the yards. Wilson was once the most important company town in the South. It sits amid 62 square miles of rich farmland, most of which was once controlled by Lee Wilson, a man almost everyone called Boss Lee. He built his fortune off the backs of sharecroppers and brought Southern agriculture into the modern age.

“For 125 years, the Wilson family owned this town. It ran the store, the bank, the schools and the cotton gin. For a time, the Wilsons even minted their own currency to pay the thousands of workers who lived on their land. Bags of coins still sit in the company vault. After the town incorporated in the 1950s, a Wilson was always mayor. But now the town — home to 905 people — is under new management, which plans to transform the civic anachronism into a beacon of art, culture and education in one of the poorest regions of the state.”

Lawrence, a native of nearby Sikeston in the Missouri Bootheel, owns more than 165,000 acres of land in Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois.

He owns citrus groves in Florida.

He owns five banks.

He has the largest privately owned air conditioning distributor in the world.

In other words, Gaylon Lawrence Jr. has the wherewithal to make Wilson as good as he wants it to be.

Lawrence, who was described by Severson as a “can-do kind of man who prefers to check his fields and watch the sunset than speak with reporters,” bought the land from the Wilson family for an estimated $110 million in 2010.

Of the town of Wilson, he told the Times: “At first you are thinking, ‘How can I get this off my back?’ But then you look around and think how can you be a catalyst? I can’t really say I am the boss. I say I am here to help. This town has so much character we don’t have to make it up.”

The buildings on the Wilson square have been repainted, and the majestic hardwood groves (which include some of the largest cottonwood trees in Arkansas) have been cleaned up. A private school is planned along with a new building to house the Hampson collection of pre-Columbian pottery and other artifacts. Wilson will host British car shows and art shows in an attempt to attract visitors from Memphis, the Bootheel and northeast Arkansas.

In addition to sampling the excellent catfish at the Wilson Café, we visited with chef Joe Cartwright, whose food is attracting people from miles around. The recently reopened restaurant on the square serves lunch from Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. and serves dinner on Friday and Saturday nights. Friday nights feature fried catfish, shrimp, frog legs and oysters. Saturday is prime rib night.

Cartwright grew up at West Memphis and attended college at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, where he worked at Lazzari Italian Oven.

“I was in college for music education, and I started washing dishes at Lazzari,” Cartwright told an interviewer several years ago. “And then one night we were a man down on the line or something. This chef put me up on the line and one thing led to another, and I never really looked back. It got ahold of me, and it’s what I’ve been doing ever since.”

Cartwright later moved to Memphis, where he became the chef at Spindini on South Main Street and The Elegant Farmer.

The restaurant in Wilson reopened on Dec. 20.

Locals refer to the Wilson Café as The Tavern (and indeed Cartwright informed us that he has just received a wine and beer permit).

Cartwright even packs box lunches for farmers and construction crews (he’s hoping the construction of a steel mill just up the road at Osceola will help that part of the business), and he plans to offer fresh vegetables from the Wilson community garden during the summer. This is a quality of food you do not expect in a town this small.

We headed north on U.S. 61 after leaving Wilson. The plan was to begin the barbecue portion of the tour at Blytheville. That’s when we saw the Hog Pen on the right side of the road (the river side, in other words) south of Osceola. We decided to sample its barbecue, which was quite tasty. The piles of hickory out back let us know that this place takes its barbecue seriously. We ate outside on a picnic table. Inside, the walls feature memorabilia from Cortez Kennedy, who played his high school football in Wilson at Rivercrest High School and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame two years ago. Kennedy, who now lives in Florida, eats at the restaurant on visits home.

Kennedy played college football for the University of Miami and spent his entire pro career with the Seattle Seahawks. He participated in the Pro Bowl eight times, earning a spot in the game in just his second NFL season. He was named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 1990s. Kennedy was an iron man, completing seven seasons without missing a game and playing in at least 15 games 10 times during his career. He was just the 14th defensive tackle to make it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

In the cotton country around Rivercrest High, which has a rich sports tradition, playing football was the thing to do.

“Where I grew up, there was nothing else to do,” Kennedy once said. “We used to throw rocks at each other for fun.”

The next stop was in downtown Osceola for a view of my favorite Arkansas courthouse. Until 1901, Osceola was the only county seat. Blytheville and Osceola then were named as dual county seats. The southern division courthouse at Osceola was built in 1912 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. It was designed in the classical revival style by John Gainsford and is known for its copper dome, its baked stone tiles and the fact that the first floor has no windows (in case the Mississippi River flooded).

Downtown Osceola was booming at the time of the courthouse’s construction. There were electric and water utilities, two ice plants, two bottling works, a wagon factory and even an opera house. Six passenger trains a day stopped at the St. Louis & San Francisco Railroad depot. The Osceola Times building, constructed in 1901, is still home to a newspaper that first was published in 1870. It’s the oldest weekly newspaper in eastern Arkansas.

We also read all of the downtown historical markers, which tell of famous musicians who once lived in the area and performed in the clubs along U.S. 61 (known as the Cotton Highway). We even went into the Mississippi County Historical Center and Museum. That facility is located in what was the Patterson Dry Goods Store. Fred Patterson purchased the lot that the building sits on for $250 in 1901 and built his store, which opened a year later. He purchased an adjoining lot in 1904 to construct another building for expanded operations. Patterson Dry Goods operated until 1987.

“The store was famous for cotton pick sacks, shoes and hats for men, women and children as well as work clothes,” the museum’s website states. “Through the years, Mr. Patterson’s store was the only place to purchase certain items. Customers came from not only the Osceola area but all of Mississippi County, surrounding counties and the Missouri Bootheel. The trademark of the store was shoes sitting outside at the entrance to announce the store was open. Fred Patterson may have had five or six styles outside at once, but they were never stolen. They were all for the same foot.

“Henry Patterson (Fred’s son) would have only a single shoe sitting out to indicate he was open for business. It is a practice continued today by the museum. The store became the loafing place for Henry’s retired contemporaries with time on their hands. The chairs around the potbellied stove held both men and women who managed to solve the problems of the world.”

The first stop in Blytheville was the Dixie Pig, the only Blytheville restaurant where we actually ate inside.

We picked up sandwiches from the other four establishments and took them out by the river behind the Nucor-Yamato plant at Armorel.  We laid them out on the hood of the vehicle, sampled them and watched the barges move down the Mighty Mississippi while enjoying the nice spring weather.

Armorel was founded in 1899 by R.E.L. Wilson (Boss Lee). The name of the town represents Arkansas, Missouri and the first three initials of Wilson’s name.

The town is the home of the Armorel Planting Co., whose chairman is 82-year-old John Ed Regenold, the current chairman of the powerful Arkansas Highway Commission. Regenold had served on the Arkansas Economic Development Commission before being appointed to the Highway Commission in January 2005 by Gov. Mike Huckabee. Regenold also served for a number of years on the St. Francis Levee Board, which is in seven northeast Arkansas counties. Those familiar with the Delta understand just how powerful levee boards are.

Back in Blytheville, we drove around the downtown business district and the city’s older residential neighborhoods, which were filled with blooming azaleas and dogwood trees. Like many Delta towns, Blytheville has bled population in recent decades. It has gone from 24,752 residents in the 1970 census to 15,620 residents in the 2010 census. At its peak, Eaker Air Force Base employed 3,500 military and 700 civilian personnel. The base closed in 1992. Some of that economic blow was softened by the 1988 opening of Nucor-Yamato Steel (which expanded in 1992) and the 1992 opening of Nucor Steel Arkansas (known locally as Nucor Hickman).

Another bright spot was the 1976 opening by Mary Gay Shipley of the Book Rack. The store’s name was changed in 1994 to That Bookstore in Blytheville. Located in a 1920s building on Main Street, it gained a reputation of being one of the top independently owned bookstores in the country, attracting the likes of John Grisham, Pat Conroy and Bill Clinton to sign books. Shipley retired and sold the store to a young man named Grant Hill, who soon tired of running the business. Enter Blytheville native Chris Crawley.

Crawley had moved from Blytheville after high school, living in Wisconsin and California. He moved back to the city in 2012.

“Mary Gay has been like my big sister for about 30 years,” Crawley told the Courier News at Blytheville. “I kind of got the bug years ago watching Mary Gay. … This was like my playground. I would read whole books while in the store.”

In visiting with Shipley after his return to Blytheville, Crawley found out that she was “still so passionate about the store, and that passion was infectious. Once I came in the space, it was just so welcoming. We believed that the legacy was something that was valuable.”

He and partner Yolanda Harrison purchased the store from Hill late last year.

Leaving Blytheville behind schedule, we made our way to Dyess.

Dyess, Poinsett County, Woodruff County and the strawberries of Bald Knob will have to wait for Part Two.

Post to Twitter

The decline and fall of Brennan’s

Monday, July 1st, 2013

My love of New Orleans is such that I had determined at a young age that if I ever got married, the honeymoon would be in the Crescent City.

Fortunately, I was able to convince Melissa of just such a honeymoon in the fall of 1989.

We ate our way across the city for a week. While the restaurant is viewed by some as a place for tourists, the famous breakfast at Brennan’s was de rigueur.

Through the years, I would take Gov. Mike Huckabee and other friends to their first breakfasts at Brennan’s. Melissa and I took our two sons there following Sunday morning mass at St. Louis Cathedral. Hurricane Katrina hit just two weeks later.

It’s hard for me to believe that the restaurant closed last week as a long-running family feud continues to play out.

“The thing that gets me most about it is that when the brothers took over from their aunts and uncles in 1973, Brennan’s was the most profitable restaurant in the world,” Tom Fitzmorris writes in his online New Orleans Menu Daily. “It has never done badly. A waiter told me that the place had a thousand people on the reservation books for this past weekend. At its lofty prices (the highest in town, except perhaps for tasting menus at places like Stella!), open seven days a week from morning through night, Brennan’s was a money machine. What the hell happened?”

The current management of the restaurant was evicted from the Royal Street property at 2:15 p.m. last Thursday by the corporation that had purchased the building at auction in May. The most recent manager of the restaurant was Owen “Pip” Brennan Jr., the son of founder Owen Brennan Sr.

It was learned Friday that one of Pip’s cousins, Ralph Brennan, is a partner in the company that now owns the property.

Ralph Brennan said in a statement: “The closure of Brennan’s restaurant is regrettable and sad but could have been averted many times over the past two years. For the last two years, I have been in repeated contact with my cousins in an effort to help avert the financial crisis that Brennan’s Inc. finds itself in today. Several offers to inject capital into the company were made and rejected.”

Ralph Brennan said that he and business partner Terry White “look forward to bringing the building back into commerce soon.”

Employees weren’t informed of the impending closure. Some arrived late Thursday in uniform to find the doors locked and everything turned off, even the gas light out front.

The restaurant’s roots date back to 1943 when Owen Brennan Sr. bought the Old Absinthe House on Bourbon Street. He opened Owen Brennan’s Vieux Carre three years later. The elder Brennan died suddenly at age 45. Following his death, the family moved the restaurant to 417 Royal St. in the 1950s and renamed it Brennan’s.

Owen Brennan Sr.’s sons — Ted, Pip and Jimmy — would run the restaurant. Jimmy Brennan died in 2010.

In early June, Pip overthrew Ted as manager in a contentious shareholder vote. Ted and daughter Bridget Brennan Tyrrell had run the restaurant since 2006, when they had ousted Pip.

Are you following all of this? It’s, at best, byzantine.

On Friday evening, Ted Brennan issued a statement saying that if he and Bridget had not been ousted, they might have been able to avoid eviction.

“Despite the defamatory statements made by others about my family’s management, we have built this restaurant from the ground up since Katrina, only for their encroachment eight years later,” Ted Brennan said. “Times have been tough, but we always put our employees first. We are sick that the staff was not told of the eviction notice Pip and his sons received. Our efforts to communicate with our employees the past three weeks have been prohibited by Pip and his agents.”

An April 26 board meeting at the restaurant, orchestrated by Pip Brennan to unseat his brother and niece, ended when the police were called.

The shareholder meeting last month at which Pip and his sons — Blake and Clark — took over was held in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan. The late Jimmy Brennan’s daughters and Pip Brennan combined their votes to unseat Ted Brennan as Brennan Inc.’s board president and restaurant manager.

The Brennan family tree is a large one.

“In the years before all of this legal action, the Brennan brothers were suing their cousin Dickie Brennan over whether he had the right to use his name on his steakhouse,” Fitzmorris writes. “It was another eruption of the long-running feud between the Brennans on Royal Street and the Brennans of all the other restaurants (including, confusingly enough, Brennan’s in Houston).

“The expense of litigating that matter was not insubstantial and that may have triggered the cash issues at Brennan’s. It’s one of many ironies that have come to light.”

And what about cousin Ralph Brennan, who already owns five restaurants in the New Orleans area?

“Ralph’s presence in this mix give a good idea of where all this is headed,” Fitzmorris writes. “Ralph is not only an astute restaurateur but a well-trained businessman. He was a CPA before joining the family’s restaurant business. And unless more surprises come out, there shortly will be a new restaurant in the superb location that has been Brennan’s since 1955.

“In order to go on, Pip and Ted Brennan will now have to find a new location pronto or somehow make a deal with the building’s owners. They also have to come to an understanding between themselves. None of this will be easy.”

Fitzmorris, who does a three-hour daily radio show on food (only in New Orleans would that much radio time be devoted to food), says this could be the restaurant story of the decade in New Orleans.

Greg Beuerman, a spokesman for Ralph Brennan, was asked by The Times-Picayune if Ralph planned to reopen Brennan’s.

The spokesman answered: “Not the same restaurant. But it’s safe to say that a new restaurant is high on the list of possibilities.”

He said the eviction gives “the new ownership a clean opportunity to create a profitable, productive enterprise that continues to do justice to that iconic location.”

I head to New Orleans early next month. I had hoped to dine in the famous pink building on Royal Street one morning, enjoying oysters Benedict and bananas Foster.

The courts aren’t known for acting quickly. I have a feeling that breakfast will have to be eaten elsewhere.

Post to Twitter