Food Hall of Fame: Take two

Another Arkansas Food Hall of Fame induction ceremony is in the books.

Our state has a diverse food culture that always has been a bit in the shadow of surrounding states. Thankfully, the Department of Arkansas Heritage last year chose to start the Hall of Fame to recognize restaurants, proprietors and even food-themed events.

I’m honored to be on the selection committee and to have been the master of ceremonies for the annual event the past two years. There were 450 nominations submitted this year to our website in all categories. That’s 150 more than last year, a good sign that this effort is growing.

We will induct three restaurants each year into the Hall of Fame.

The choices in our inaugural year were Jones Bar-B-Que Diner of Marianna, the Lassis Inn of Little Rock and Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales of Lake Village. I don’t think anyone on the selection committee realized it at the time, but all three of those restaurants are owned by African-Americans. I thought that was justified since blacks have contributed so much to the Arkansas food culture through the years.

The three restaurants chosen this year were Franke’s Cafeteria of Little Rock, the Venesian Inn of Tontitown and McClard’s Bar-B-Q of Hot Springs.

In 1919, C.A. Franke opened a doughnut shop on Capitol Avenue in Little Rock. He built a large bakery on Third Street in 1922 and deployed a fleet of trucks nicknamed “wife-savers” that made home deliveries across the capital city. In 1924, he opened Franke’s Cafeteria near major downtown department stores. Franke’s later expanded to multiple locations across the state. There are two remaining locations, both in Little Rock. One is downtown in the Regions Bank Building and the other is on Rodney Parham Road.

The Venesian Inn is in a community that was settled by Italian immigrants who were escaping the mosquitoes and malaria of the Sunnyside Plantation in southeast Arkansas. Germano Gasparotto opened a restaurant in 1947 and later sold it to fellow Italian-Americans John and Mary Granata. The restaurant and its recipes stayed in the family through the years. The signature dish is fried chicken and spaghetti. I consider that a perfect combination of Arkansas and Italy. Visits to the Venesian Inn have been a tradition for decades of fans attending University of Arkansas football and basketball games in nearby Fayetteville. The restaurant still uses the original wooden tables installed by Gasparotto.

McClard’s history of fine barbecue dates back to 1928 when Alex and Alice McClard were running a motor court and gas station in Hot Springs. A man who had spent the night at the motor court was unable to pay his bill but offered to pay with what he claimed was the recipe for the world’s greatest barbecue sauce. The McClards had no choice but to take him up on his offer. They secured the recipe and began serving it on the goat they were selling to travelers. The goat is long gone, but the sauce is still there for beef and pork. So are fourth-generation family members.

There were nine other finalists this year. I predict that all of them will be inducted at some point. They were:

Bruno’s Little Italy of Little Rock: Italian immigrant brothers Nicola, Gennaro, Vincenzo and Giovanni Bruno all immigrated to this country from Naples through New York’s Ellis Island. They brought with them Italian recipes and cooking skills. Giovanni’s son Vince — who was known as Jimmy — was stationed at Camp Robinson during World War II and returned soon after the war ended to open his first restaurant in the Levy neighborhood of North Little Rock. He was known for spinning pizza dough in view of his customers while singing loudly. His sons Jay, Vince and Gio grew up watching their father work. There have been numerous locations through the decades, but the original recipes still are used at the current location on Main Street in downtown Little Rock.

DeVito’s of Eureka Springs: Since opening the restaurant in 1988, James DeVito has been attracting area residents and tourists with Italian cuisine, fresh trout and locally sourced ingredients. Those who go to Eureka Springs year after year tend to put DeVito’s on their list of must-visit restaurants. I know that’s the case in our family.

Dixie Pig of Blytheville: Since 1923, the Halsell family has been serving up pork barbecue with its famous “pig sandwiches” as they’re called in Blytheville. I’ve previously declared Blytheville as the barbecue capital of Arkansas, and the Dixie Pig is one of the reasons why. Ernest Halsell opened the Rustic Inn in 1923, and the Dixie Pig is a direct descendant of that restaurant. It draws barbecue enthusiasts from Arkansas, Tennessee and the Missouri Bootheel.

Doe’s Eat Place of Little Rock: George Eldridge was a pilot who frequently would fly business clients to Greenville, Miss., to eat at the original Doe’s Eat Place on Nelson Street. In 1988, he convinced the Signa family of Greenville to let him open a downtown Little Rock restaurant using the same name and concept. When Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign staff and the national media began hanging out in Eldridge’s restaurant during the 1992 campaign, the Little Rock location became more famous than the original. The private room behind the kitchen at Doe’s is the place to be for political fundraisers and meetings in the capital city.

Feltner’s Whatta-Burger of Russellville: Please don’t confuse this with that chain that’s based in Corpus Christi, Texas. Bob Feltner opened the doors of this restaurant on Thanksgiving Day in 1967. He earlier had operated other restaurants in the city, including one called the Wonder Burger. But the Whatta-Burger had staying power. Generations of Arkansas Tech University students, along with Razorback fans driving to and from Fayetteville, have kept the lines long at this classic.

Kream Kastle of Blytheville: In 1952, Steven Johns kept the menu simple. He sold hot dogs, hot dogs with chili and hot dogs with chili and onions. By 1955, however, he had added a barbecue pit and was soon serving his own “pig sandwiches.” In fact, it’s those sandwiches that put the restaurant on the map. The debate over which sandwich is better — the one at the Dixie Pig or the one at the Kream Kastle — has gone on for years. Steven’s daughter Suzanne and husband Jeff Wallace now operate the drive-in.

Neal’s Cafe of Springdale: Housed in a landmark pink building, Neal’s has become more than just a restaurant through the years. It’s a center of the community; a place that draws people together and engages them in conversation. The restaurant was opened by Toy and Bertha Neal in 1944, and the Neal family has owned the business through four generations. Local business owners meet for breakfast and discuss community issues there. At lunch and dinner, people drive from throughout northwest Arkansas for entrees such a chicken fried steak with gravy and chicken and dumplings.

Ed Walkers Drive In of Fort Smith: Anyone who grew up in Fort Smith can tell you about Ed Walker’s. It opened in 1946 and was soon thriving thanks to the car-crazy culture of the 1950s. Even the sign out front that advertises “French dipped sandwiches” is a classic. Visitors also can’t go wrong with burgers and pie in a place that harkens back to Fort Smith’s roots as a tough, blue-collar town where the food was simple and served in large portions.

White House Cafe of Camden: This is the oldest continuously operating restaurant in the state. A Greek immigrant named Hristos Hodjopulas opened the White House near the railroad depot in 1907. Camden was booming in those days, and the restaurant was soon operating 24 hours a day. It just serves lunch and dinner these days. There’s everything on the menu from Southern classics to Tex-Mex food. Original furnishings remain. It’s like stepping back in time.

A new category this year was the Gone But Not Forgotten category.

The winner was Cotham’s Mercantile of Scott. Cotham’s long run ended when a fire broke out early on a Tuesday morning in May of last year. It destroyed the century-old building that hung out over Horseshoe Lake. The structure had once housed a general store that served farmers in a thriving area of cotton plantations and pecan orchards.

In 1984, the store began serving lunch and became a favorite of then-U.S. Sen. David Pryor. It was Pryor who first told me about Cotham’s in the late 1980s when I was covering Washington for the Arkansas Democrat. I made the trip to Scott for the famous hubcap burger on my next visit to Arkansas. I instantly was hooked by the place that used the motto “where the elite meet to eat.”

In 1999, Cotham’s in the City opened at the corner of Third and Victory streets near the state Capitol. The building once had housed the capital city’s first fern bar (yes, they were all the rage in the 1970s), a TGI Friday’s. During the years I spent working in the governor’s office, I made frequent walks down the hill for lunch at the Little Rock location. The menu was the same, but there’s nothing quite like sitting near farmers on the banks of an oxbow lake at Scott. There are no plans to rebuild the Scott location.

The other three finalists in the Gone But Not Forgotten category were Coy’s of Hot Springs, Jacques & Suzanne of Little Rock and Klappenbach Bakery of Fordyce.

As soon as I looked down from the podium and saw the tears in Coy Theobalt’s eyes, I knew this new category meant a great deal. Coy’s burned down in January 2009 on the eve of the thoroughbred race meet at Oaklawn Park. Theobalt grew up watching his parents operate the restaurant, which opened in 1945.

“It was seven days a week for them with no vacations,” he said. “It convinced me that I didn’t want to do it. It means a lot to our family to see that so many people have fond memories of the restaurant.”

Family members came from multiple states to see Coy’s honored. Growing up in Arkadelphia, Hot Springs was the place my family went to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries and the like. My late father’s three favorite Hot Springs restaurants — Coy’s, Mrs. Miller’s and Mollie’s — are all gone.

I sometimes was allowed to tag along with my parents for anniversary dinners. When I think of Coy’s, I remember valet parking, Mountain Valley Water in big green bottles, booths with the names of certain families attached to them (I aspired to have a booth named after me one day, a goal I never achieved) and warm crackers dipped in house dressing. If it were during the Oaklawn race meet, you could expect a long wait before being seated in the restaurant at 300 Coy St., just off Grand Avenue.

With the opening of Jacques & Suzanne in 1975 atop what’s now the Regions Bank Building in downtown Little Rock, 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, Restaurant 1620, the Purple Cow and Alouette’s. Their former employees opened additional establishments such as Andre’s and Cafe St. Moritz.

It’s fair to say that Jacques & Suzanne took dining out in Arkansas to a new level. Arkansans accustomed to pork barbecue and fried catfish learned about escargot, caviar and souffles. The dishes were prepared by classically trained chefs, and the kitchen served as a sort of graduate school for those working there. It wasn’t an accident that Bash, Moore, Petit and Seyer won the Proprietor of the Year award during the first Arkansas Food Hall of Fame induction ceremony last year. Jacques & Suzanne closed in 1986, but its influence remains strong more than three decades later.

Often when a place that I consider an Arkansas classic closes, it’s because the owners are tired. As Theobalt noted, it’s a tough business. Klappenbach Bakery is an example of that. The bakery and restaurant, which for 36 years graced the downtown of the Dallas County seat, closed in September 2011. After iconic college football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, it was one of the best-known things to come out of Fordyce.

There are certain places that come to define a town. Klappenbach was one of those places. Norman Klappenbach was 80 and his wife Lee was 77 at the time of the closure. Son Paul, who was 47 at the time, grew up in the business and spent the seven years prior to the closure working full time there. He came in at 3 a.m. and said the 65-hour workweeks had depleted his energy. He had been unable to find an assistant baker.

When the hard-working owners of such establishments die or retire, there’s often no one to take their place. The children have no interest in long hours and limited revenues. Buyers can be hard to find, especially in rural areas that are losing population. Once they’re gone, they’re gone for good.

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