Let's face it -- there are a lot of restaurants in Arkansas. Lots of good ones. A good number of them tend to the upscale crowd while others hit ethnic niches. But from my observations, lunch-goers tend to go where they know the food's good, cheap and comforting. That's right -- they head to their local diner.
I've been collecting diners to talk about for some time. For instance, I've already gathered and shared information on The Pancake Shop, Stout's, Ed Walker's, Stagecoach Grocery and the venerable Old South. But a comprehensive guide? That's hard to do. After all, there are so many places like Madea's Home Cooking and The New Green Mill Cafe out there...
But here's a shot. Most of these reviews were originally published on the Arkansas Times' Eat Arkansas blog. Others will likely be added here or there. If you have one to suggest, drop me a line at email@example.com.
Bobby's Country Cooking (Little Rock)
There’s something to be said about comfort food… something that draws in lines of folks that stretch around a packed restaurant before noon on a weekday. That’s what I found when I dropped by Bobby’s Country Cooking one Friday -- a line that was backed up to the door at 11am.
There’s no set menu there… just four entrée items, a selection of sides, drinks and a case full of homemade pies. But that’s apparently enough to draw folks in.
That Friday’s specials included fried chicken, catfish, chicken fried steak, and hamburger spaghetti bake. I went for the latter, pairing up my choices with cornbread, white beans, and corn. The cornbread muffin was sweet, and the spaghetti was very much like what I’d expect if I was eating at someone’s house for dinner -- a very casual dinner. Hunter tried to eat her weight in the white beans. Thank goodness for ample portions.
The hubster went for the fried chicken, paired with mashed potatoes and gravy, a white roll, and fried okra. He says the okra was on the salty side, but what I sampled didn’t seem salty at all. The chicken wasn’t all that greasy, with a good flour batter and lots of taste to the meat.
“Meat and Two Veg” runs $7.25 for any combination, and iced tea is $1.50. Tax is figured into the price, so you’re not going to walk out with a lot of pennies. And those pies? Gotta tell you about the pies.
When we were picking up our plates, we eyed the pie case. All the pies are homemade, and it shows. Choices included peanut butter pie, mint chocolate pie, coconut cream pie, lemon ice box pie, and pecan pie. We went for a slice of chocolate cream pie and a chunk of cheesecake with cherry topping. Sure, the cherry topping was cherry pie filling, but the cheesecake was obviously homemade and had real substance to it. The chocolate pie was cool, creamy, and apparently pudding based. Good, though. Pie, by the way, is $2.25.
When we left, the line was actually out the door and onto the sidewalk. That should tell you something. You’ll find Bobby’s Country Cooking in the big orange shopping center at Markham and Shackleford. (501) 224-9500 -- lunch only.
Butter Lovins (aka Grandma’s Butter Lovins) (Cabot, AR)
This is a slice of decadent and lovely butterscotch pie from Butter Lovins in Cabot. It is one of the finest examples I have found of this sort of pie, and the first I've had in ages that included meringue. Not too butterscotchy-y... more like... well, honestly, first thing I thought of was how pound cake batter tastes. Good stuff. And the crust is flaky and not sweet.
The little restaurant is a nice example of the local lunch joint -- cheerily clean and bright, small, a few bar stools for counter service and several country-style tables. They have lunch specials (Monday it's Spaghetti with Meat Sauce, Tuesday Ham & White Beans, Wednesday Chicken & Dumplings) for $4.25 and a mean Chef's Salad, too. But what people have kept telling me all about is the pie -- chocolate, coconut, whatever happens to be the flavor du jour, $2.79 a slice.
Just another great little place for lunch in Cabot. You'll find it on the west side of North Second Street a few blocks north of the Dancing Baby sign. Worth a drop-in.
Crazee's Cool Cafe (Little Rock)
Okay, I’ll give you this -- Crazee’s isn’t specifically a diner. It’s a bar. But for lunch, it might as well be a diner. Yes, it's one of those that allows smoking and doesn't allow anyone under 21. Yes, it has pool tables. But the lunch crowd I encountered were a friendly bunch -- filling most of the tables in the center of the room.
I went on a Friday afternoon, hungry for some comfort food. Just trusting my instincts, I sat down, ordered the daily plate special, and watched.
There's a popcorn maker by the door that's apparently free to everyone. A guy at the table next to me received the Half Pound Footlong Dog ($6.95) while I was waiting, and I momentarily lusted after it. My waitress brought me an oversized cup of iced tea and I watched sports highlights.
The Daily Special ($8.25) was chicken spaghetti, and my plate contained a nice sized bowl of it along with a salad that contained tomatoes, lettuce and onions. The Thousand Island dressing was pretty good. The spaghetti? Warmed me up and treated me like a lady. I was very happy with it.
The other special offered any day at lunch is the Burger Special -- you can choose any of the burgers from the menu and it comes with fries and a drink for $7.50. That includes hamburger, cheeseburger, BBQ burger with cheese and bacon, Mexican burger with jalapenos, Italian burger with Mozzarella and marinara and mushrooms, and Mushroom Swiss with, well, mushrooms and Swiss cheese.
I like the fact that the price on the wall when I came in was what I paid -- the sales tax was already figured in. No pennies to fiddle with.
Crazee's Cool Cafe is located at 7626 Cantrell Road, on the north side of the road west of Mississippi. (501) 221-9696.
Dan’s I-30 Diner (Benton, AR)
It took me a couple of months to follow up on a recommendation to try out Dan’s I-30 Diner. I’d been meaning to get out Benton-way, but every time I found myself in the area, it was after the restaurant’s 2pm closing time.
So one Tuesday morning I walked in and was told I could go sit where I liked. A rather thorough waitress came over and took my drink order. I asked her if I should go for breakfast or lunch, and she told me both were good but the biscuits weren't as fresh as she'd like them by this point of the day. I happily ordered lunch.
I know, I say a lot of things like "I was surprised that" or "it was remarkably good." I tend to cheerlead a bit over some of the restaurants I find. So let me put it to you another way. The combination of warmth, flavor, and variety in my lunchtime repast filled me not just with food but with pleasure.
There were several choices on the plate lunch special on the board -- hamburger steak, chicken or catfish tenders, or chicken dressing for entrees, everything from pinto beans to turnip greens for sides. I'd asked the waitress which she'd chose, and she'd suggested the chicken dressing, and she was right. By gum, it was some of the best cornbread-based dressing I've ever tried, with big hanks of pulled chicken and a little cup of cranberry orange relish served on the side.
The sweet potato casserole had this nice crunchy top of caramelized sugar and nuts on it. And the Devilled Egg Potato Salad was the best potato salad I'd had in quite some time, very tangy and eggy. My waitress also brought not only cornbread but a roll, told me she couldn't remember which I'd asked for. The roll was a little moist and very soft, of the Parker House category. The cornbread was Arkansas style, unsweet except from what sweetness came from the corn, and made from white flour.
This little repast set me back all of $6.95. I was disappointed... because I couldn't help but get stuffed and had to turn down a slice of homemade egg custard pie ($1.99).
So I get to the register to pay, and see this sign. Had to ask about it. That chicken dressing I had for lunch? Turns out you can order it for the holidays, $15.50 for a half pan or $27.50 for a whole one. Same for the sweet potato casserole or the apple or cherry cobblers. I'm going to have to give that some serious thought. I'm telling you, that dressing was good.
You'll find Dan's I-30 Diner on the westbound service road next to the Best Western in Benton. You'll have to take the Congo Road exit either direction to get there. They're open 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day except Sunday -- and, for those who already know about the diner but don't know this -- a sign on the door announced that they're now open 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Sunday. (501) 778-4116.
Dave’s Place (Little Rock, AR)
I'm all about a bargain, and maybe that's why I am keen on this Center Street dive. The long restaurant a block and a half from the Statehouse Convention Center is your usual soup-and-sandwich sort of place that dot downtown for diners with little time to spare and no desire to move parked cars.
Of course, it could be too easy to shortchange the place based on that assessment. So don't. Instead, go if you can (there's metered parking out front) and grab yourself a good sandwich or one of the specials (listed each day on the eatery's website).
I particularly enjoyed the Beef Tenderloin Sandwich ($5.50 with chips), nice and buttery soft and served up on Spinach Feta bread with a spread of horseradish sauce. But it was the Three-Egg Omelet ($6.25) that really won my heart. The restaurant offers just about everything it serves in the omelet, and you can choose the number of ingredients you want. I went for the smoked chicken on the waiter's recommendation — along with tomato, bell pepper and cheddar cheese. The omelet came out hearty and hot, accompanied by a fluffy blueberry muffin, a strawberry, and big slices of cantaloupe and watermelon. The smoked chicken was an excellent choice.
And don't miss out on having dessert. Each day, there's something different. I rather enjoyed this memory-evoking slice of Key Lime Pie. No, it wasn't some fruit-bit laden entity of out-of-state procurement, nor was it some creation that came packaged in a box from the freezer case. This was one of those Southern granny specials where Key Lime Juice meets sweetened condensed milk, and it made me very, very happy. Can't beat the price either -- just a buck. I've also rather enjoyed the housemade brownie, too.
You’ll find Dave’s Place at 210 Center Street in Downtown Little Rock. It’s only open 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. during the week (and for a few more hours Friday nights) but they also do catering and the sort. (501) 372-DAVE.
E.J.'s Eats & Drinks (Little Rock)
It’s inevitable… if you get a reputation to be “into” food, you’re going to get recommendations. And one of the big recommendations I get anytime I mention that I’m going to be downtown is “you gotta go get lunch at EJ’s.”
Not that I’m a stranger to the sandwich-soup-salad shop in the old Lions Club building. Not at all. Friends have taken me many times, and I try to drop by when I have business in the Metropolitan Tower building. Problem has been that I tend to leave the camera packed away.
That’s because EJ’s Eats and Drinks is one of those local joints that’s way past being casual. It’s just “one of those places,” like a good bar (think “Cheers” for the sandwich set). The eclectic mix of dead comedian pics on the walls, the strange pinkness of the exposed second story, the laid back wait staff and the plethora of familiar faces just holler “don’t get so comfortable you take off your shoes in here.” It’s nice.
I do dig on their Reuben and their Big Steak sandwiches ($7.25 regular or $8.50 footlong). And their cornmeal-breaded onion rings ($2.75) are tasty. This trip around, though, I decided to try out EJ’s Cheeseburger ($6.25) and was pleased with the offering -- a decent patty cooked medium well with a choice of cheese, a couple of slices of tomato, chunks of lettuce and a thin slice through a purple onion.
But what really stands out are the chips… EJ’s makes its own, and seasons them, too (regular, BBQ or ranch). They come free with the sandwiches and burgers (though you can upgrade to fries or soup) and… well, there’s just something about a fresh skin-on potato chip just fried and dusted with sweet seasoning… it’s just… well… good. It’s thoughtful, much moreso than those places that put a twisted slice of orange or a sprig of parsley on a plate to jazz it up.
Maybe that’s why folks keep coming back. ‘Course, could be all the reliable choices on the menu, too. Oh, they have dessert, too -- but it’s something different every day -- cookies for 50 cents, brownies of different sorts for $1.50, and usually some pie or cheesecake or something else. The cookies and brownies are individually wrapped and available at checkout -- so you can grab one to go as you scuttle back off to the workplace. You’ll find it at the corner of Center and 6th, two blocks off Broadway. They do the call-ahead thing (501) 666-3700 -- and you can check them out on the web.
The Finish Line Café (Alexander, AR)
Quiche. Stuffed Bell Peppers. Tabouleh. Hand-thrown pizzas. Squab. Crawfish Etouffee. Chicken Fried Steak. Bread Pudding. Fried Broccoli and Cheese. That’s a pretty wide menu with some pretty crazy items on it. Chances are, you’d expect to pay quite a bit for a restaurant with this sort of variety.
Would you believe me if I told you the chicken fried steak plate above cost just $6? Yes, I was surprised… even though my brother had been telling me about this place for months. About huge reasonably priced breakfasts, a case full of take-and-go meals, a wide selection of beverages, and the unusual. So I finally decided to go out and meet him… at school.
That divine everchanging menu is what you’ll find at the café at Pulaski Tech’s South Campus, The Finish Line. It’s run by students of PTC’s culinary school. Hence that variety.
The day we went we had to wait a bit -- students had just left class (there are indeed other programs on the campus, including the car mechanic school that my brother is attending) and were grabbing hot meals before their next stop for the day. Unlike the cafeteria where I pursued my higher education, this really looks more like a café, though its “courtyard” is actually just a fenced in area outside the café within the halls of the school.
My brother’s plate (the chicken fried steak) came with two sides and a drink for $6. Doesn’t matter what they serve at Coupe de Grille (the station where you get hot “home cooking,” it’s still $6 ($4.25 if you just get three veggies and a roll). Which isn’t bad.
I was tempted by many things when I took my turn through the line… the quiche selection was pretty grand, as was the desserts. There’s a salad bar and a hot dessert station. I almost passed on something unusual, though. As I was glancing down into the take-and-go case, writing on the boxes caught my eye. I dare say, it’s the first time I’ve ever seen squab sandwiches offered, anywhere. Of course, I had to try it… along with the equally unusual to me Fried Broccoli and Cheese. And Blueberry Crunch… it looked good, so I figured I’d try it. Along with my iced tea, my meal came to less than $8.
And I was thrilled with the quality. On occasion I’ve spent more for a “deli lunch” downtown and didn’t get anything half as good.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, they have pretty good pizza, too… hand thrown and covered in plenty of cheese. And I understand their gourmet hot dogs are also splendid.
PTC also offers dining options this at the Big Rock Bistro at PTC’s Main Campus.
You’ll find The Finish Line inside Pulaski Tech’s South Campus. If you’re coming from Little Rock, you’ll need to take the Otter Creek exit off I-30 and ride the access road to the entrance (you can’t get there from the County Line/Alexander exit). It’s just inside the main entrance. Weekly menus are posted on their website.
Frontier Diner (Little Rock, AR)
I was searching out comfort food in the Baseline Road area, and found it along I-30. You know you’re going to have a good comfort food experience when you see “PurpleHull peas" listed as the vegetable of the day. Can't go wrong with that.
Mind you, I was a bit late for the lunch rush -- the restaurant closes at 1 p.m., and this was around 12:20. But most of the stuff on the lunch board was still available -- pork chop, chicken fried steak, meatloaf -- only the chicken spaghetti was gone.
Well, as I mentioned, I was looking for comfort food, so I ordered the meatloaf. Spent a few minutes looking around, too.
The Frontier Diner is one of those places that's been around forever. Its kitschy decor and Route 66 inspired décor is the perfect sort of place for a guy working out on a job to come grab a quick breakfast or lunch and head out somewhere else. I've been before... several times. I like the "World Famous 1/2 Pound Cheeseburger" and the battered fries are pretty good, too.
This time around, I got that meatloaf, and was surprised not only at the quickness of service (less than three minutes) but the size. My chunk of meatloaf rivaled the dimensions of a typical brick -- maybe not as long, but a bit thicker and covered in a tangy tomato sauce. Potatoes were creamy, the peas were fantastic with bits of onion, and I got less than halfway through that meatloaf before I started begging for a box.
Oh, and I had dessert. Before I really had dug into the meatloaf a couple of the waitresses had asked if I was going to have the special of the day, the Tiramisu Cheesecake, and they talked me into it. And I am glad they did... layers of espresso and chocolate and cream and cheesecake were hard to ignore, and I finished every last bit of it. It was wonderful.
The lunch special is $6.29 and comes with a couple of side items and a roll or cornbread (cornbread's on the slightly sweet side and served with Land O' Lakes). Desserts are under $3. And the waitresses are nice and chatty.
You'll find Frontier Diner on the westbound access road of I-30, just west of Baseline Road (over by AHTD). They're open for breakfast and lunch. (501) 565-6414.
Home Plate Diner (Bryant, AR)
The recent laments over a lack of good local places to have a cheap breakfast or lunch lead me to Bryant’s Home Plate Diner -- that, and all the signs proclaiming it the town’s best place to eat. Sometimes, you gotta check these things out.
Now, when I think “diner,” I think lunch counter. I think bare bones. I think hot coffee and pastries and an open griddle. But at Home Plate Diner, it’s ‘50s and ‘60s décor, jukebox, teal blue walls and chrome. More like an upscale diner-type restaurant. The décor caused my wallet to get nervous.
No need. The prices within were actually a lot closer to what I expected. I was disappointed, though, that we had missed the 10:30am breakfast cut-off. Instead, my traveling companion and I split on our orders, he ordering up a burger with onion rings and myself going for the daily lunch special.
There are Trivial Pursuit cards on the tables to help you pass the time while you are waiting. You seat yourself, and your waitress comes to you. Ours did okay, except for initially forgetting to put in the onion rings order -- which meant my companion ended up with rings and chips.
His Hamburger ($4.79) came with chips -- other options would have been fries (+$1.29), sweet potato fries (+$1.89) or the onion rings (+$1.99). The half pound of meat was impressive, as was the chunk of Jack cheese and lettuce on top of the burger. Not a lot of seasoning on the meat, but once you add all the accoutrements it isn’t bad. Besides, c’mon, it’s a half pound.
Onion rings are battered in flour and deep fried. Ours were a little on the salty side but the sweetness of the onion balanced it out okay.
The lunch special was Chicken Fried Steak or Hamburger Steak ($6.49), so I went with the former. I chose macaroni and cheese and sweet potato casserole as my two side items. Diners usually get a choice of roll or cornbread, but the place had already run out of rolls for the day. That was okay, because the sweet cornbread was pretty good. The mac and cheese wasn’t spectacular, but the chicken fried steak was crispy outside and falling apart on the inside, and smothered in white gravy, a real stick-to-your-ribs sort of meal. The sweet potato casserole, though, was incredible -- with little caramelized sugar and pecan bits. Definitely the best part of the meal.
The place hasn’t been around all that long, and their hours are a bit short -- 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday and 6:30 to 11:30 a.m. on Saturday. It’s clean, it’s bright, and the food is decent. They do take-out orders, too. (501) 847-3331 or you can check out their website.
Wagon Wheel Restaurant (Greenbrier, AR)
The family dining experience… hometown restaurants that include ads for local businesses on their menu, where trophies and plaques for school sports dangle on walls and there’s sometimes even an item on the menu named after a school mascot. Many of these places bear a lot of merit. Others are simply in-town way stations of food, a place to eat when one does not want to venture forth outside of city limits.
Wagon Wheel Restaurant in Greenbrier is a good family sit-down with a wipeboard on the wall advertising the day’s specials and the choice of vegetables. There’s a cooler case with meringue-piled pies within easy eye distance, tempting from afar. The restaurant is loud with the buzz of conversation and alive with a varying cast of regulars and road-weary travelers looking for a place to light and hover for a bit.
Fortunately, good sustenance can be found in such a location. The restaurant offers a fine selection of breakfast items and dinners. But on one particular Monday, we were craving burgers… big ones, hand patted ones, and we were not disappointed.
Of course, one of my companions had to choose the namesake burger for the place, the Wagon Wheel Delight ($5.25 with fries). It sounded odd to me, a burger of sour cream, mushrooms, and green onions, but it was indeed a delight and worthy of a place of honor on the menu.
I chose the Cowboy Delight (also $5.25 with fries) and was delighted with a long sesame seed roll filled with plenty of hand patted and seasoned ground beef, Monterrey Jack cheese, and sautéed peppers and onions. I opted out of the offered mustard but ended up with pickle on my burger (also comes standard) but this was not an unwelcome thing. In fact, it gave the burger an unexpected tang that was pretty decent. The accompanying fries were big almost unseasoned planks of hand cut potato that sat up and begged for ketchup.
My other companion was the bravest… going for the Hotty Burger ($4.25 without fries) and adding on an order of onion rings ($1.95). His fat burger patty was smattered with pepper jack cheese and jalapenos and plenty of them. It was fun to watch him start to redden and sweat as he savored the peppery goodness. The onion rings, by the way, were similar to some I have experienced lately where the batter includes what tastes suspiciously like French onion soup mix. Here it works okay in a cornmeal and flour batter with chunks of hand-cut onion sections.
I wanted the pie… I really did… or shall I say my eyes did, because my belly wasn’t having any more of it. Too much food! I was only disappointed when I saw one of the waitresses change a selection on the wipe board from “Ham” to “Country Fried Veal.” THAT would have really been interesting.
Oh, we also tried the squash, and were very happy with the salted and battered deep fried rounds. Within the batter the squash was mush, but good flavored mush.
On a subsequent visit, I finally got a shot at that pie… mighty fine, mighty fine as one of my former co-workers would have said. I’d just suggest you order it first, lest you miss out on a chance at all that goodness.
You’ll find the Wagon Wheel Restaurant on the right side of the road as you head up Highway 65 into Greenbrier. (501) 679-5009.