We all have places that are near and dear to our hearts. Perhaps there's a special restaurant where you went on your first date, or where you met the person you married. Or, if you're lucky, you've found a place where you go again and again to celebrate the good times.
Kelt's in Altus is that place for me. My husband and I have celebrated several anniversaries, a New Year's Eve, birthdays, and job promotions at this lovely and unpretentious little pub in the heart of Arkansas Wine Country.
From the outside, the building is rather unassuming. It sits perched over the town square, a steady influence in the area tucked in between the minute City Hall and one last remnant of early 20th Century downtown with a revolving group of characters (restaurants, antique and flea shops, and more). For 13 years, it's managed to hold its own. It even survived the invasion of folks from FOX and Paris Hilton -- which is saying quite a bit.
A lot of that is due to the sheer tenacity of Dan and Jan. The McMillens have been stubbornly running the pub with heart and stamina, and not just a little bit of hope. After all, can a tiny town of approximately 800 people really hold onto a great restaurant? For anyone who's ever dropped in for a pint -- oh, yes it can.
We ventured up to Altus on assignment for another piece on a surprisingly light day in July. The humidity had taken a break, and the temperature of the air seemed a good 15 degrees cooler than anything you can find in Little Rock. After completing the research the day deserved, my traveling companion (of course, my husband this time) ducked over to see what was shaking at Kelt's.
We were greeted with a cool burst of air and the savory smell of beer and meat that so often welcomes us to the establishment. Being a robust 4pm, there was little going on inside -- just a meeting of the wait staff to discuss an upcoming event and us. Dan greeted us himself and showed us to a lovely table by the wall, out of the sun. As always, we received both of the menus -- the extensive beer and wine selection, and the one with the food. We were heartbroken to find that Dan's divine Corned Beef was already gone for the day, but there were plenty of other choices to drool over, like Bangers and Mash (plump sausages served with mashed potatoes) and a very rich Pub Burger. There are a wide selection of sandwiches and there's salad -- but there's just one item on the lunch menu that we knew we wanted -- steak.
We have a history of dealing with Kelt's steaks. We know Dan will go back, pick out the meat himself, and cook it right then. There's no advance preparation. We also know that any time we go to Kelt's it's time to slow down and enjoy ourselves -- because being anxious about being hungry ain't gonna help -- it'll be out when it gets out. But that's all right -- because the whole atmosphere of the restaurant encourages a person to sit down, relax, and enjoy oneself.
My traveling companion has bemoaned the fact over the past few years of the inavailability of Murphy's Stout on-tap (he can't bring himself to wean himself down to Guinness). He asked Dan for a recommendation, and was soon served up with a pleasant chocolately ale, New Belgium 1554 Black Ale, that was light like a drinking lager but sweet and meaty like a stout -- a very good choice. Other selections on the beverage list include Bass Ale, Harp Lager, Newcastle, Woodchuck Pear Cider (one of my favorites) and of course wines from all of the local wineries. Alas, with a trip back to Little Rock on the menu, one of us needed to refrain, so I stuck with the iced tea -- refreshingly strong brewed compared to the watered-down variety of the average chain restaurant. The coffee, which I enjoy a bit too much, is also strong and served with real cream.
Our beverages were delivered with a hot loaf of sweet brown bread -- not that dark knock-off you'll get at Outback Steakhouse, but a pleasant wheat and real butter (no margarine here!) It's enough to kick off the edge after a hard day of work.
The lunch steak special comes in eight or 12 ounces, along with appropriate accoutrements. Salads come with your choice of dressing -- Ranch, Bleu Cheese, or Caesar. Though many have lauded the incredible Spicy Ranch here, I went for the Bleu Cheese, and was greeted with a thick chunky dressing carefully drizzled over a rich variety of greens dabbed with fresh croutons. My traveling companion chose Caesar for his own.
The music that permeated the afternoon air was of the soft Irish variety, heavy on the lively and on subjects of mortality (two of the selections praised the benefits of a good Irish wake). The soft lighting at our table embraced us in an intimate glow we've experienced before -- both when the pub has been empty and when it's been packed full on a Saturday night. The tables and chairs don't match -- neither does the silverwear -- but who cares. Most of the decor is older than I am, but it feels like home to me.
In short order, Dan had our steaks out -- rich strips of beefen delight seasoned with pepper and a hint of herbs. There are no apologies here for the health-conscious -- this is good food, and the heck with watching the calories. The steaks come out with a selection of sauces -- a lovely cool Bernaise with a hint of honey, a rich boullion-flavored au jus, and a light garlic butter that's not swimming in salt. The accompanying soft new potatoes with butter and herbs would be enough of a side for most of us -- but here they also come with broccoli in a lighter, cheesier version of the Bernaise and a smattering of slightly soured onions. Yes, there's a bit of a buttery pool on the bottom of the dish -- but that's all right. That's what the second loaf of bread is for.
We never do make it to the dessert menu when we go -- good meat and bread and ale usually do the trick of filling us up. But we've never been rushed out, even with the heartiest of Grape Fest crowds around.
Jan stopped by and told us about several of the events coming up, and some special activities that go on at the pub. We already knew about the intimate gigs from groups like Some Guy Named Robb and our friends Jay and Robert. But Jan also told us about the Boar's Head Feasts they host every Sunday in December, just in time for the Yuletide season, where the pub is transformed into a 15th century Tudor dining hall. We missed out on the Time Travel Weekend, where diners ate 16th century style and shared roasted beasts and the Plowman's Share (bread, sausage, and cheese for those who've never had the pleasure).
Sure, Kelt's is ecclectic. Don't expect to make your own lemonade there with lemon, sweetener, and water -- that's an extra charge. If you call for reservations, you'll find there is no such thing... and if you ask about children Dan's likely to ask you how you'd like them cooked (though children are welcome -- however, you'll have to bring your own booster seat). The restaurant seats about 50, but if you have a large crowd expect to sit at several tables instead of one big conglomeration. Relax -- you'll be able to hang with your buddies later -- for now, you'll be able to enjoy a good Irish dinner with a pint or two in one of Arkansas' best kept secrets.
And if you're going with your sweetheart, you just might get the best seats in the house -- an intimate table for two in the back with this gorgeous painting, close to the bookcase. My husband and I celebrated several anniversaries here over the years.
And don't bother looking for a website right now. The one linked around doesn't actually go to Kelt's -- but that's all right. You can find this tiny treasure on the Altus town square, 14 Hilltop Drive, next to City Hall. If you must call (perhaps to check out who's playing some Thursday night or to see what's on tap), call (479) 465-2413. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday (8am-10pm) and for an excellent Sunday brunch (noon to 3pm).
Kelt's does have a website now. You can check it out at keltspubinfo.com.