Bring back Browning’s, dang it!

I was out of town for much of last week and therefore am late commenting on the closure of that Little Rock icon, Browning’s Mexican Food.

Much has been written about the Heights institution since it closed on Tuesday night of last week. There was a wonderful editorial in Saturday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, for instance.

The comments sections of the Arkansas Times’ Arkansas Blog and the Eat Arkansas blog were filled with input from people who loved (and hated) Browning’s.

My thoughts: A spot on Kavanaugh Avenue in one of the most affluent sections of the state’s largest city — a spot that has held a restaurant since the 1940s — can only be described as a great location.

Also, nostalgia sells. If you don’t believe it, reference my post from earlier this week about the retail success of Dick’s on Main Street in Branson.

When it comes to a restaurant, nostaglia and location aren’t enough. The food and service, of course, matter a great deal.

Here’s my advice for the savvy investor: Bring back Browning’s. Stick as closely as you can to the Ark-Mex menu for fans of the old Browning’s (I count myself among those fans). Keep up the breakfast that had been added by the new owners. Serve it six days a week. Make it, quite simply, the best breakfast in town. In a city that lacks for independent restaurants that serve a full breakfast, there’s a market here. At lunch, have the top plate lunch in town (Browning’s was once known for its lunch specials) for those who don’t want Ark-Mex.

Next, have the most efficient service in the city. Period. I liked to have breakfast meetings at Browning’s but often found the service (or lack thereof) maddening.

Finally, make the restaurant spotless. There’s nothing wrong with old. But it must be clean.

There are few professions that require longer hours than running a restaurant correctly. The owners were quick to say there were some management problems. They suggested that a lack of business wasn’t the major problem. And it appears the tax man was on the way.

So have a top-notch business manager. Location, nostalgia, Little Rock’s best breakfast, great plate lunches, Ark-Mex in the evening, outstanding service, cleanliness and hard work should add up to a profitable enterprise.

I didn’t grow up in Little Rock. But like a lot of Arkansans, my family made frequent trips to the city. So I ate at Browning’s as a child. And when I moved to Little Rock immediately following graduation from college, I became a regular at Browning’s on my nights off (I was a sportswriter and my hours were from late in the afternoon until late at night).

I agree with those who say that the Ark-Mex at Browning’s is an acquired taste. My wife, who was raised in far south Texas and knows good Mexican food, hated the place the first time I took her there. I tried to explain that despite the sign out front that said Browning’s Mexican Food, this wasn’t really Mexican food. It wasn’t even Tex-Mex. It was Ark-Mex. In my family, we referred to it as the platter of orange and brown goo, and I loved it.

Sometimes when my wife would say, “You’re on your own for dinner,” I would drop by Browning’s. If you saw me there at supper, I was usually eating alone. I would get the red punch and the Summer Plate (taco, guacamole salad, cheese dip) whether it was summer or not. If I were still hungry, a scoop of sherbet would serve as dessert. I left satisfied.

Given the strong outpouring of public sentiment since Browning’s closed, I think the foundation is there to keep the place alive.

And if there is no rebirth?

Well, it will serve as a lesson. If we truly love the old places, we have to do more than talk about them. We have to spend money there. I was having lunch recently with two prominent commercial real estate developers, and we began listing the truly old-line restaurants in Little Rock. The list was short — Franke’s, Bruno’s, Browning’s, Lassis Inn. I love them all. And I spend (or spent in the case of Browning’s) money at all of them.

We can take nothing for granted.

I’m reminded of that each time I drive down U.S. Highway 49 and pass the closed Shadden’s barbecue joint near Marvell, the wreath still on its door. When I would make that drive every week during my years of working for the Delta Regional Authority, I took for granted that Shadden’s would always be there. Then Wayne Shadden died and the place closed, likely to never open again.

The Shadden’s legend, however, will live on. I received a nice note yesterday from Liz Williams, the president of the Southern Food & Beverage Museum in New Orleans. She reported that she had read on this blog about the closing of Shadden’s and was able to obtain the sign.

That sign will now be a part of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. It also will help shine a spotlight on the Arkansas barbecue culture, which has never received the national recognition that I feel it deserves.

The next time you’re in New Orleans, you need to drop by the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. It opened in June 2008 and is in the Riverwalk Marketplace, along the Mississippi River adjacent to the city’s enormous convention center.

Here’s how the museum’s website (www.southernfood.org) describes this exciting, relatively new addition to New Orleans’ inventory of attractions: “The Southern Food and Beverage Museum is a nonprofit living history organization dedicated to the discovery, understanding and celebration of the food, drink and the related culture of the South. … While based in New Orleans, the museum examines and celebrates all the cultures that have come together through the centuries to create the South’s unique culinary heritage. It brings all races and ethnicities to the table to tell the tale, from the farmer and the homemaker to the line cook and the celebrity chef.

“The Southern Food and Beverage Museum celebrates, interprets, investigates, entertains and preserves. A collaboration of many, the museum allows food lovers of all stripes — Southerners and non-Southerners, locals and tourists, academics and food industry insiders — to pull up their chairs and dig into the food and drink of the South.”

In addition to the food and drink, the museum focuses on:

— The many ethnicities that have combined to create Southern food and drink traditions.

— The farmers, fishermen, hunters and gatherers who have produced the food.

— The processors, inventors, chefs and business people who run the restaurants and stock the stores.

Liz, who has been involved in several major economic development projects in New Orleans, is also a lawyer who writes about the legal aspects of food. She’s working on a book about obesity lawsuits and other food-related litigation.

Maybe somebody at the museum can tackle that strange subculture of Ark-Mex enthusiasts. At any rate, the museum is open from 10 a.m. until 7 p.m. each Monday through Saturday and from noon until 6 p.m. on Sundays. Pay a visit on your next trip to New Orleans.

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