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

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