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Lunch at Franke’s (and Bryce’s)

On the trays, it reads: “Arkansas Food, Arkansas People. Franke’s. Arkansas’ Oldest Restaurant. Family Owned and Operated Since 1919.”

Actually, the Lassis Inn — the dive down on East 27th Street in Little Rock, near where Interstate 30 crosses Roosevelt Road, is older. We’ve written before about the Lassis Inn, that haven for fried catfish, buffalo ribs and R&B on the jukebox. But it has changed hands through the years.

Franke’s, which began as a bakery, has remained in the same family through the decades.

My office is in the high-rise Regions Building downtown. And on days like today, when I find it’s easier not to leave the building, Franke’s more than satisfies my hankering for the kind of food I was raised on.

I was having lunch recently (not at Franke’s) with downtown developers Rett Tucker and Jimmy Moses when we began discussing the old-line restaurants in the capital city. Unlike Rett and Jimmy, I wasn’t raised in Little Rock. But we came here often when I was a child. I can clearly remember being mesmerized by the live lobsters in the lobby tank at Hank’s Dog House on Roosevelt (I guess it didn’t take much to impress a boy from Arkadelphia).

At any rate, Rett, Jimmy and I decided about the only old Little Rock restaurants that live on are Franke’s, the Lassis Inn, Bruno’s and Browning’s. Are we missing any restaurants that date at least back to the 1950s?

As for Franke’s, I always enjoy experiencing the difference between the downtown location and the one in west Little Rock at the Market Place on Rodney Parham.

The downtown location is open Monday through Friday for lunch only. You’ll see lots of lawyers, bankers, insurance executives and the like.

The west Little Rock location, which is open for lunch and dinner seven days a week, tends to attract an older clientele, though we’ve introduced my two teenage sons to the joys of Franke’s. It’s the type of place my mother would visit when she would come to Little Rock to shop or go to the doctor. Indeed, there were too many times to count when she would have lunch at the old University Mall location of Franke’s. Why on earth would anyone have gone to the out-of-state chain invader Luby’s that used to be at Park Plaza when they could cross Markham Street and visit an Arkansas institution?

My sons don’t crave the eggplant casserole and egg custard pie like I do (I have friend who refers to Franke’s simply as the Eggplant Emporium), but they do always find something they like. And, yes, I’ve raised them to be huge fans of turnip greens and black-eyed peas.

I also like the fact that the Franke’s menu refers to it as “Karo nut pie” rather than “pecan pie,” just like my father and grandparents always did.

I generally avoid chain cafeterias. I used to say: “I ate lunch in a cafeteria from the first grade through college, so I don’t have to now.”

But the independents are different. The older I get, the more I find myself craving two cafeterias — Franke’s in Little Rock and Bryce’s in Texarkana.

I now time my drives to and from Dallas so I’ll be passing through Texarkana at lunch or dinner. Bryce’s is where I stop. It hasn’t been around quite as long as Franke’s, but Bryce’s is no spring chicken. The cafeteria was established in 1931.

Growing up in Arkadelphia, we were about the same distance from Little Rock and Texarkana. Arkadelphia folks occasionally would go to Texarkana rather than Little Rock for a change of pace, and the old Bryce’s location downtown was a regular stop.

Bryce’s is now on the Texas side of the state line, just off Interstate 30 near the mall. And the food is as good as it ever was. A Chicago Tribune writer once said: “Bryce’s Cafeteria may have better food for the money than any place on earth.”

Ross Perot, a Texarkana native, has called it his favorite place to eat.

A quick story: Like a lot of headstrong, active boys, my oldest son was slow to potty train. He was a train nut as a young boy. So my mother promised him that if he would get potty trained, she would allow him to ride a “real train.”

It worked. And his grandmother was true to her word. They boarded an Amtrak train at the Arkadelphia depot with tickets only as far as Texarkana. My father raced down Interstate 30 in his car to beat the train and pick them up. They ate at Bryce’s. My son then slept all the way back to Arkadelphia in my dad’s big Oldsmobile following one of the most exciting, memorable days of his young life.

The entrees at Bryce’s can range from fried chicken to deviled crab to country fried steak to stuffed bell peppers. The sides include everything from sweet potatoes to cheese grits to creamed corn. They even have a Karo coconut pie at Bryce’s.

At Franke’s, meanwhile, baked chicken, baked ham and roast beef are always on the menu. The entrees on the other days range from country fried steak on Monday to fried chicken on Tuesday to turkey and dressing on Wednesday to chicken and dumplings on Thursday to fried catfish on Friday. I could go on and on.

There are too many salads to mention. The vegetables you can always count on are mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese (I love being in Arkansas, where macaroni and cheese is a vegetable), candied sweet potatoes, green beans, greens, baked potatoes and new potatoes. There are other daily specials — rice on Monday, steamed whole okra on Tuesday, etc.

There are too many desserts to list. The egg custard pie is considered a tradition.

There are a few Arkansas mementos on the wall of the downtown location. There’s a black-and-white photo of Capitol Avenue looking west toward the state Capitol. You can see the Franke’s sign on the left, and the sign for the Capitol Theater on the right.

There’s also the 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. Above the framed gavel is a framed campaign poster urging Arkansans to vote for Cazort in the Aug. 14 Democratic primary.

On the Franke’s Facebook page, there’s the image of an old post card that featured the cafeteria. On the back is what’s said to be a “voluntary testimonial” that was in a “letter pertaining to a Southern tour that was sent to an Ohio newspaper.”

This is how it read: “We always like to stop at Little Rock awhile, as it is the prettiest city west of the Mississippi. Be sure and take a meal at Franke’s Cafeteria on Fifth Street near Main, as the eats are the finest to be had anywhere and priced the lowest. They feed over 4,000 hungry people daily.”

So let’s start the debate. Which do you prefer, Franke’s or Bryce’s, and why?

Am I missing any other good Arkansas cafeterias out there that are still in business?

What cafeterias are no longer around that you miss? For me, it’s Homer’s in Arkadelphia.

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