Roby Brock has just come out with another edition of his excellent magazine, Talk Business Quarterly, which covers business and politics in Arkansas.
For four consecutive issues, I’ve written the “Arkansas Institutions” feature for the magazine.
For the first installment of “Arkansas Institutions,” we featured the Sno-White Grill in Pine Bluff, which has been serving up great food since the 1930s.
For the second installment, we focused on the “King Biscuit Time” radio show in Helena-West Helena.
For the third installment, the subject was Oaklawn Park at Hot Springs.
For this issue, I paid a visit to George’s Majestic Lounge on Fayetteville’s famed Dickson Street. I know. It was a tough assignment. But somebody had to do it.
On the day I visited in March, owner Brian Crowne was sitting at the bar with two employees when I walked in, planning for what he hoped would be a big night. Most of the other bars and restaurants along Dickson Street would end up having a slow night on this particular Friday. It was, after all, the start of spring break at the University of Arkansas. Students were flooding out of town.
George’s, however, is much more than a college bar. Sure, it was selected as one of the top 100 college bars in the country by Playboy back in 1997. But there’s a tradition at George’s called Friday Happy Hour that attracts a much older demographic. It starts at 6 p.m. and runs until 8 p.m. each Friday. The bands tend to play classic rock or rhythm and blues. And even though the college students were fleeing Fayetteville, Crowne was expecting a crowd of at least 400 people to show up for Friday Happy Hour to hear a 10-piece band called Fullhouse. He said most of those in attendance would be between the ages of 40 and 70. In other words, my age group.
So much for being just a college bar.
George’s will turn 83 years old this fall. Crowne, who purchased the Dickson Street institution along with a business partner in January 2004, had first fallen in love with the place when he was a young musician playing in Fayetteville in 1989. The Fort Smith native played the saxophone, and his band was booked for Friday Happy Hour.
“There were almost 300 people here, and it was an eclectic group,” he told me. “There were professors. There were students. There were hippies. There were business executives. The diversity is what struck me. I liked that. You could see everybody from an aging hippie to a business leader like Don Tyson. I had no clue if I could ever afford it, but I knew then and there that I would like to own this place one day.”
George’s had opened along the railroad tracks crossing Dickson Street in 1927. George Pappas and a cousin named Theodore Kantas owned the place. Pappas’ brother was the chef. Around Fayetteville, they simply were known as “the Greeks.”
Pappas had spent the previous 25 years running a restaurant in Fort Smith known as the Manhattan Cafe. After 20 years in business on Dickson Street, Pappas sold the business to Joe and Mary Hinton. The Hintons didn’t change the name.
Mary Hinton would become a Fayetteville legend in her own right, owning the business until it was sold to Bill and Betty Harrison in 1987.
The Harrisons had their first date at George’s in the 1950s when they were in college. It was a special place to them, and they would hold onto it until selling the business to Crowne and business partner Suzie Stephens.
“I consider myself the curator of George’s more than the owner,” Crowne told me. “If I do my job, it will be here long after I’m gone.”
George’s has a number of claims to fame.
It was the first bar in Northwest Arkansas to integrate in the late 1950s.
It was the first bar in Fayetteville to have a color television.
It was the first place in Northwest Arkansas to offer pizza delivery.
Legend has it that the first band to play at George’s was a group known as Ray Thornton and the Seldom Fed Seven in 1955.
Yes, that Ray Thornton.
Thornton, a former congressman and justice on the Arkansas Supreme Court, said that rather than being an actual band, the group was intended to drum up support for his campaign for student body president at the university.
Live music began being heard at George’s on a regular basis, though, in the early 1970s. Musicians ranging from Robert Cray to Leon Russell to Delbert McClinton have played there through the years. Crowne books most of the bands himself and offers live music as often as six nights a week. It’s a mix of local and traveling acts with cover charges ranging from $5 to $30.
A more recent attraction is the Italian food that’s served for lunch each Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Crowne’s father-in-law and mother-in-law, Bob and Sarah Yazzetti, moved from New York to Arkansas in the late 1980s. In September 2007, they teamed up with their son, Jessie, to begin serving wonderful Italian lunches of spaghetti, ravioli, homemade meatballs, Italian sausage and more at George’s.
I ate until I could barely walk. I can tell you how good it is.
Shots of George’s sometimes are seen on national television when football and basketball games are being telecast from Fayetteville. History just seems to seep from the walls. Crowne says former UA students tell him great stories, such as the one when Mary Hinton would shine a flashlight up in the trees around the beer garden and tell certain Razorback football players to come down.
George’s was one of the five nominees for the Nightclub of the Year award this year from the Academy of Country Music. Now that’s quite a feat — to be considered one of the best country nightclubs in America and one of the best college bars in America at the same time. It’s that sometimes schizophrenic nature that makes George’s so special.
Several years ago, there was a survey that asked University of Arkansas alumni to vote on their top 20 Fayetteville memories. You won’t be surprised to learn that trips to George’s Majestic Lounge made the list.
A few questions that I hope you will answer below:
1. If you went to school at the University of Arkansas, what’s your favorite George’s memory?
2. What are your favorite live music venues in the state?
3. Speaking of Italian food, what are your favorite Italian restaurants in Arkansas and why?
4. What Arkansas institutions would you like to see us profile in future issues?
Pick up a copy of TBQ. There’s some insightful political writing by Roby and John Brummett, TBQ political poll results and a profile by Werner Trieschmann of one of our state’s treasures, the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies.