Saturday, June 29, 2013

Explore El Dorado From Above It All at Union Square Guest Quarters.

Can a place to stay spark interest in the revitalization of a downtown? In the case of Union Square Guest Quarters, the answer is a hearty YES. Let's take a look at the unique lodging that’s transformed downtown El Dorado into a great place to stay, play and dine in Lower Arkansas.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Williams Tavern: 181 Year Heritage Continues.

Williams Tavern Restaurant at Historic
Washington State Park. (Kat Robinson)
This is one in a series on historical restaurants in the state of Arkansas. For a look at the Arkansas restaurant timeline, click here.

When did restaurants start popping up in Arkansas? For that matter, what qualifies as a restaurant?

The term “restaurant” wasn’t much u
sed in our country, let alone Arkansas, before the 20th century. The word was allegedly created by a soup vendor in France who sold “restoratives,” which taken to one extreme equates restaurant with soup, no? Hrm.

That man was known as Monsieur Boulanger, and in 1765 he had this sign outside his shop in Paris: “VENITE AD ME VOS QUI STOMACHO LABORATIS ET EGO RESTAURABO VOS” (Come to me, all who labour in the stomach, and I will restore you). He gets credit for the word… but the actual concept of a place where you exchange money for food is quite ancient… with both the Chinese and the Romans having some variation.

Fresh, hot rolls and jalapeno cornbread are brought
to every table.  (Kat Robinson)
Ah, where am I going with this? Here in Arkansas, finding a restaurant still standing from the 19th century presented a bit of a challenge – especially one still in operation. The oldest such structure still in existence stands in Little Rock – the city’s oldest building. That’d be the Hinderliter Grog Shop, which is part of the fine collection of territorial buildings at the Historic Arkansas Museum. It dates back to 1827, maybe a year earlier. But we’ll get into that later.

The state’s oldest restaurant in its original location could quite possibly be the Oark General Store, out way in the little Oark community near the Mulberry River and far away from just about everything else. It dates back to 1890.

The tavern in summertime.  (Kat Robinson)
But oldest operating today? That honor likely goes to Williams Tavern Restaurant. The restaurant part was added in 1986, when the building was set and opened for lunch on the grounds of Old Washington, now Historic Washington State Park, a whole town of 19th and early 20th century abodes about a dozen miles north of Hope.

The structure was first raised not in Washington but in Marlbrook, some seven miles to the northeast, in 1832 by a man named John Williams (no, not that John Williams!). He lived there for the rest of his life, passing on in 1869.

Williams’ place wasn’t just his home – it served as a stopping-in point for the community and for travelers. It was post office, stagecoach shop, and tavern. His “stand” off the Southwest Trail was considered one of the best known between Memphis and the Red River. Wayfarers would arrive, purchase corn and hay to feed their horses and then have a bite to eat themselves. Many would camp around the inn before heading out the next morning.

A lunch of hand breaded chicken fried steak, fried
zucchini and black-eyed pea salad.  (Kat Robinson)
Old Washington State Park was created in 1973, the year I was born. Structures from the area were moved into place in the empty spots over the years, and thanks to a donation in 1985 by the Pioneer Washington Restoration Foundation, Williams Tavern found a home. It was restored and opened in 1986 for breakfast.

Black-eyed pea salad has a pickle-like tartness and
includes purple onion, pimento and green beans -- a
traditional South Arkansas side dish. (Kat Robinson)
Today Williams Tavern is open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Chicken fried chicken with fried squash and black-eyed
pea salad.  (Kat Robinson)
for lunch. There’s often a buffet, or you can order off the menu things such as ham steak, hamburger steak, chicken fried steak and such – served up with so many possibilities of sides ranging from green beans and corn and fried okra to squash, zucchini and black-eyed pea salad. You can get a burger there… which harkens back to tavern food tradition if not to the periodicity of the restaurant. And it’s known for its cream-filled chocolate Earthquake Cake (see recipe below).

Ham steak with cherry sauce, corn nuggets and
creamed potatoes. (Kat Robinson)
And in the Yuletide season, the restaurant still offers a traditional holiday dinner of turkey, ham and all the fixings – on a buffet, all month long.

Dusty Chambers.  (Kat Robinson)
Is it an authentic experience? Depends on what you're calling authentic. If you're interested in eating food popular in southwest Arkansas, it's spot-on. If you're looking for the exact items served at Williams Tavern in the 1830s? Not so much. Then again, we don't really have a complete record of what was available at the tavern back then. And chances are, a lot of the staples available today just weren't around back then.

But it is wonderful. The wait staff dress in country outfits -- white shirts, black skirts and aprons. A lot of those aprons are made by Dusty Chambers' mom. She says her mom can make any apron from scratch at the drop of a hat. After seeing so many different aprons attributed to her mom, I believe that statement.

Anyway, I mentioned Earthquake Cake. Here's a recipe.

Earthquake Cake. (Kat Robinson)

Earthquake Cake

1 cup coconut
1 cup chopped pecans
1 package German Chocolate Cake Mix
6 ounces cream cheese, softened
1 stick oleo
1 pound confectioners' sugar

Grease and flour 13 X 9-inch pan. Spread coconut and pecans in bottom of pan.

Prepare cake mix according to package directions. Pour batter over coconut and pecans.

Mix cream cheese, oleo and confectioners sugar. Put mixture on top of batter. (Glob it on by the teaspoonful.)

Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Cake will be shaky but will set up.

Rita Purkey, Covington. "Desserts," Daily-News-Record, Harrisonburg [VA], October 17, 1991 (p. 22)


Strawberry cake. (Kat Robinson)
One more thing. I made two visits to Williams Tavern in two weeks -- one before and one after the original Tie Dye Travels piece was written. I've added to it -- and I suppose you can see why.

While there, I had an ethereal experience. I tasted something that hadn't crossed my tongue since I was a kid -- a south Arkansas delicacy called Cushaw Pie. It's made from a goose-necked squash that's green with white or yellow stripes. What memories that evoked! So, for you pie lovers, here's a recipe.

Cushaw Pie.  (Kat Robinson)
Cushaw Pie

2 cups prepared cushaw squash puree
2/3 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
12 ounces evaporated milk
Single pie crust

Combine cushaw squash puree, brown sugar, cinnamon, ginger, and salt in a medium-size mixing bowl. Add eggs and vanilla then beat lightly with a whisk. Stir in evaporated milk. Mix well. Pour into a pastry-lined pie plate. Bake on the lowest oven rack at 375-degrees for 50-60 minutes (until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean). Chill before serving.

Bread pudding. (Kat Robinson)
I could talk some more, but I'll hush now.  Learn more about Williams Tavern Restaurant here -- and consider signing up for the park's newsletter to receive more great recipes.

This article brought to you by First Security Bank. For more great Arkansas stories on food, travel, sports, music and more, visit

Williams Tavern Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Let's Go Back to The Old South (in Russellville).

The Old South, July 2010.
This is one in a series on historical restaurants in the state of Arkansas. For a look at the Arkansas restaurant timeline, click here.

Time quells a lot of memories – but not all of them. I can quite clearly remember my first week in Russellville as a student at Arkansas Tech University. First time I lived away from home. I learned a lot of things very quickly. I learned that at night you could see stars from the center of campus; that there was little to no insulation on the outside of my room at Roush Hall; that driving up Mount Nebo with its little tight hairpin turns was a lot of fun… and that you really only had two options for sitting down and eating overnight in town – the Waffle House or The Old South.

I spent way too much time in this booth.
I wasn't the only student who quickly found out that the latter was the better choice. While you could only really hang out at the Awful Waffle as long as you had your plate in front of your face, at The Old South you could sit up all night, nursing a cup of coffee, if you bought just one item off the menu. That item, in my case, was usually the fried honeybun – a Hostess honeybun removed from its package and heated in a skillet with a lump of margarine, dumped on a plate and presented with a fork. There were many nights I spent in the back room of the restaurant, usually in one of the round booths with one or more companions from school, poring over the notes for whatever test we were taking – or, as it became more common in my case, scribbling down yet another piece of poetry or prose for Mrs. Tyson’s Composition class or a slightly scandalous piece of fiction for B.C. Hall.

Of course, there's pie.
Those distant early 90s days were packed from one end to another, and like many college students sleep just wasn't as important as it came to be later on. What most of us failed to grasp, though, was just how important the restaurant where we huddled happened to be to history.

See, The Old South was about 45 years old about the time I was looking at 20. In my late teens I didn't really comprehend the value of the sleek Art Deco styling, the time capsule that the place had become for the last remnants of the great Route 64… maybe not of cultural importance to the level of Route 66 but certainly a byway of significance in the way this part of the country unfolded in the middle part of the 20th century.

A postcard from the original Old South in Fort Smith.
(Fort Smith Historical Society)
The restaurant was built in 1947, a couple of years after the end of the second World War. As much as today’s residents of Russellville would like to believe that it’s the one and only – it wasn't alone – and it wasn't the first. That was The Old South in Fort Smith… opened around 1945 at 711 Towson Avenue (now a parking lot for Sparks Regional Medical Center). Confused?

Note the rounded windows, part of the original design.
Here's what it all amounts to.  The Old South wasn't a family start-up like other restaurants I've talked about. It was a concept restaurant – a franchise, at that, created as a turnkey operation. The original man with the plan was William E. Stell, an Oklahoma-born businessman who created and founded the National Glass and Manufacturing Company in Fort Smith back in 1929. The company created fixtures, furniture and metalwork for restaurants and department stores. It wasn't a far jump for Stell to develop a modular diner system to take advantage of the new automobile culture developing. Unlike the Streamliner design (which was a contained prefab unit), Stell’s idea was for a modular build-on-site system that could be adapted to the location. He employed the help of architect Glenn Pendergrass (he designed the El Chico restaurants around Dallas) to design the concept he envisioned.

The front of the restaurant has a similar set-up to that of
a classic Steamliner diner.
The first, that Fort Smith store, was an experiment. Stell brought in a guy from New York City to form a menu – that man was none other than Schwab’s R. C. Strub. The style of a Kansas City-style steakhouse menu was adapted for use in what would be a series of roadside diners. The idea was to create a restaurant quickly. And it did catch on.

Evening at The Old South in May 2008.  Note the neon.
No one knows for certain how many The Old South restaurants were built – but the last “other” restaurant (in Camden, SC) apparently closed in 2005. The original location was demolished in the 1970s.

The Russellville location, though, started quick and has endured for the ages. The last week of March, 1947, Stell delivered on a contract to Woody Mays (owner of Woody’s Classic Inn and Coffee Shop; the motel still operates today, though the coffee shop is long gone) and had the location built in just six days. It opened on April 4th, 1947 on the outskirts of town.

Lettuce and carrot salad, hot roll and crackers with butter.
Now remember, this was long before Interstate 40 ran coast to coast. While folks tend to recall Route 66 as the best way from Chicago to the California coastline, it wasn't the only way to get out there. Route 64 (which actually intersects with old Route 66 in Tulsa, OK) was the best way to get from the east coast in North Carolina out as far as Arizona, and took drivers on the most direct east-west route across Arkansas. Because of this, folks of all ilk traveled the highway, and when they came into Russellville they stopped at The Old South for a bite. Didn't matter who they were, they stopped. That includes the likes of Ernest Tubb and B. B. King and even, yes, Elvis Presley. And… yes, even an aspiring young writer out of Little Rock who at the time thought there was no money in it and was going to be a band director. (side note: I came to Russellville specifically to be part of the Arkansas Tech Band of Distinction. Check out this marching band performance from 1993).

I’m rambling. You can read more about the history over on the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program website.

Morning crowd.
The restaurant's "famous" fried chicken.
What that website doesn't convey is the feel of the place. Back in the 1990s, I didn't know what the place looked like inside during the day… I was too busy leading the extraordinarily packed life of a would-be band director and broadcaster (another story for another day) and the only time I managed to get inside was when I was pulling an all-nighter. Other Tech students made fun of the place, with rather crude names for the eatery. You might think it was the sort of place you wouldn't revisit later on.

But it was. It didn't take me long after graduation and a whirlwind few months that sat me down in Jonesboro at my first TV job in 1995 for me to realize I missed the place. I missed Russellville as a whole. When we’d go back (my ex-husband’s father lived there) I’d wistfully gawk as we drove on by. He wasn't a fan.

Me? It’d take me time to make a real return – and by that point it was May of 2008 and I was pregnant and craving fried chicken… and it was as it always was, crisply and heavily battered, greasy and served with that eponymous salad that wasn't much more than lettuce and carrot shreds. Comfort food.

Corned beef in a can for breakfast.
Since then I've dropped in from time to time, usually grabbing breakfast. And it’s a breakfast I have always appreciated – pretty much from when I could afford something more than the fried honeybun. The corned beef from a can, the hashbrowns, eggs fried on a griddle top enhanced by well over 60 years of grease… yeah, enough to give you a heart attack if you ate it day after day but food for the soul when you’re on the road and you don’t know for certain how long it’ll be before you get back home. Consider it a homecoming, if you will – a place to land for a lonely freelancer out trying to get a scoop on a story to sell to whatever magazine would throw a little cash my way.

But I digress.

Coffee.  Black.
The Old South ceased being a 24 hour operation sometime in that interim when I was growing up, living life and getting my head on straight. It couldn't compete with IHOP or the new Waffle House or the late night coffeehouses with their posh lighting and even posher coffee menus. At The Old South, there’s coffee, regular or decaf, and you can get cream and sugar if you want it but that’s about it. It’s the sort of thing that apparently doesn't really appeal to today’s college crowd (though I understand the hipsters really dig that sort of scene).

The place nearly ceased to exist altogether this past April, shut down for non-payment of taxes. But Russellville? Well, folks around town have ties to this place, this old section of Americana. And they banded together and held a city-wide yard sale and paid the taxes. And it’s open again.

Homemade biscuits and cream gravy.
66 years is a pretty dang good run for any restaurant – even more so for a restaurant built in just six days. Whether The Old South survives this generation and the ones to come after it, remains to be seen. But I think it’s about time I plan to drop in and grab myself a bite. I might even order that damn fried honeybun again. After all, I've never taken a photo of the ghastly thing.

One more note.  Next time I go back I will order the fried pickles and photograph them.  The Old South actually holds Austin "Fatman" Burnell's original fried pickle recipe.  Burnell created the Arkansas original back in the 1950s at the Duchess Drive-In in nearby Atkins.

Old South Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Monday, June 3, 2013

AQ Chicken House means Arkansas Quality.

For nearly 70 years, the venerable AQ Chicken House has served the masses. Find out how this Arkansas institution came to offer some of the best fried chicken in the Ozarks along US Highway 71 in Springdale.