I’ve recently bemoaned the fact to my friends that Little Rock lacks a locally owned coffee shop that’s open 24 hours a day. I mean, yes, we have the chain operations and such, but we don’t have a local place that has its own soul. Other cities do -- big ones, yes. Little ones, too. And then there’s Fort Smith, which brings me to Benson’s.
I was working on assignments for a couple of my publications. It was late. We’d been run out of Joe’s Italian Restaurant, my friends Grav and David and I had been, after spending hours catching up together. We arrived around 10:30, picking up after parking our cars where we’d left off after boarding our vehicles and heading up Rogers Avenue. The lot was crowded but that was okay, there was parking next door. We walked right in and headed to the only free booth big enough for the three of us, back in the left-hand corner.
We were almost immediately met by a waitress with glasses of water, asking what we wanted. I needed coffee, and I got it, hot and black served up in a brown melamine mug with a white lining. Not an eyebrow was raised at the three of us chuckling away, talking about old friends and Doctor Who and places we’d travel. Come to think of it, we were actually quite normal.
I knew my Fort Smith trip was going to take me to Benson’s. I’d asked for recommendations on my Facebook fan page and two names came up repeatedly, Benson’s and Calico County. I just didn’t know it was going to happen that night. We were still stuffed from Joe’s and I kept thinking any moment now our party would break up and we’d all go home. But David and I see each other, what, maybe every other month at most. And Grav, well, he’d been away for years.
We weren’t the only ones catching up. There were a couple of girls at the bar who kept peppering the grill guy with questions. The other end of the restaurant was packed, all six booths, and the jukebox was howling country periodically. From time to time someone would swipe one of those little yellow signs on the counter and put it on their table. We were curious. On a run back to the restroom (we were, after all, drinking massive amounts of coffee) I caught a glimpse and laughed. I brought it back to the table to show the guys. It clearly said: OUT SMOKING. DO NOT CLEAR AREA. That was worthy of a photo.
Or two -- honestly, it was intriguing. I’d never seen that before in my life. Neither had Grav, and he went back a few days later and got a much better, much more artsy photo than I can manage with my little camera. But I digress.
Benson’s reminds me of my college days, spending time in a diner and pissing the night away while enjoying the company of friends. It got rowdy from time to time, but never too much, and there was always someone standing on the other side of the glass from us, lighting up. As we reminisced, the restaurant filled and emptied around us a couple of times, like the tide and the stages of the moon.
We got a little silly, of course. Nothing like a little shot of youthful memories to convince you of doing silly things, like photographing everything on your table -- salt shaker, coffee cup, silly signs. Our waitress just kept bringing that hot pot of coffee over and over again, never clucking her tongue at us. I’m sure she’s seen it all before.
We finally broke up about 1:30 that morning, having had one of those great seven hour conversations you don’t get many times in your life. We’d enjoyed it in the orange-and-brown interior of a kitsch loaded restaurant that smelled of grease and bread, and it had been fine.
But I had not accomplished my goal. I planned to come back after my usual 6 a.m. wake-up and return to the place. I hadn’t counted on the fact that I wasn’t used to staying up all night any more, and ended up sleeping until nearly eight. Then I had to update Eat Arkansas, answer some emails, get my ducks in a row. I winced when I saw the clock on the way out of my hotel room -- 10:34, the day already wasting away.
I knew I didn’t have to worry about missing breakfast, though. Benson’s offers its entire menu, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. When I once again darkened the doorway it was at the end of the breakfast rush, a little before lunch rush would begin, and I had my choice of places to sit. I decided to take one of the little two-person booths. I also knew I didn’t want coffee. I hadn’t drank that much coffee in ages, and my stomach ached from the abuse.
I did know what I wanted, though, and when my waitress came over I didn’t even have to look at the menu.
“What’ll you have, hon?”
“Chocolate milk. And sweet potato pancakes.”
“One, two or three?”
“Do you want one pancake, or two, or three?”
I thought for a moment, then decided to split the difference. “Short stack. Two.”
“All right! Won’t be long.”
She had a bounce to her step that didn’t seem probable, a lightness about her that revealed she liked her job more than she let on. She was the only one working, and though there were some seats open it was still hustling and bustling. I watched her dance on over and pass the ticket to the grill guy, then head over to the fridge and pour a glass of milk. Chocolate was added by bottle, and she left the long-handled teaspoon in the drink when she brought it to my table.
The crowd had changed. There were more professional sorts, some blue collar folks, They were here to grab a bite before heading somewhere to accomplish something. I’d been there a good 20 minutes before someone went and leaned on the jukebox and dialed up a tune. Heart’s Greatest Hits, I’m guessing, Barracuda followed by Crazy On You. There was a steady stream of customers who washed up to the register to pay up before sliding out through the foyer and into the real world.
I sipped my chocolate milk and took notes, listening to the hiss of bacon on the griddle and the shuffle of feet under booths. My waitress came back over with a bottle of syrup and eyed the camera. I nodded and smiled.
A few minutes later the restaurant was all but empty. The ebb and flow of customers had reached low tide, and except for one booth’s worth of people on the far side of the place and a couple of folks at the bar, it was quiet. I picked up my camera and took a few shots here and there.
The waitress looked back over at me.
“What are you doing?”
“Just taking some photos. It’s what I do.”
“Well, all right then.” She left me alone and I found my way back to my seat. I jotted down a few things to remember for later.
I looked up, and she was there with a big plate in hand. She slid it in front of me along with a metal ramekin of margarine and a packet of silverware.
“Anything else I can get you?”
“I’ll be sure to let you know,” I told her, absorbing the sight before me. It smelled like Thanksgiving. I could hear the shuffling of feet as another wave of customers hit the foyer ad entered the building, but I only had eyes for the two 8” rounds on my plate. They were more than pancake brown, they were ruddy and still somehow golden in their simplicity. I snapped a couple of shots, then contemplated the butter and syrup, adding a little and trying for that all-important establishing shot I always quest to achieve. The perfect round of margarine with a glistening crown of maple syrup from the provided squeeze bottle made a picture too good not to tease the tummy.
And I kid you not, it was difficult. It was very hard for me not to just dig in. But dear readers, that’s the sort of thing I do for you. After all, what good would it be to tell you about these pancakes without a photographic representation to share? I even turned up the edge at one point to see the color underneath -- a delicious orangey-brown reminiscent of pumpkin bread.
Well, the moment of truth. A couple dozen photos taken, and it was time to try them out. I noticed as I finally pressed the side of my fork down on the two pancakes that my waitress was watching me. I stabbed the piece I’d cut with the fork, raised it her general direction and smiled. And then I tried them.
I encounter a lot of pancakes in my travels. Call it an occupational hazard. I’ve had some strong on the cornmeal and some that had no cornmeal at all. I’ve had examples I swear came directly from the Krusteez bag. I’ve had thick ones and thin ones and some that are big as your chest. But this is the first time I have ever had sweet potato pancakes. And even though they had cried out at me with the words “Southern Delicacy” I was not fully prepared for the wonderment that rolled over my tongue. I will admit, I love sweet potatoes, but that day I found a new favorite way to have them. They smelled of cinnamon and nutmeg and tasted like someone loved me. They were pliant and perfect and sprung back at the touch, and they tasted like November. I found myself adding more syrup, the maple being the perfect accompaniment to the dish. I was happy.
I sat there for a while once I’d cleared the plate, quietly contemplating the dregs of my chocolate milk and willing myself the initiative to get up and do something. The rain had finally decided to stop threatening and actually spit at the world, and the parking lot was growing damp. I looked at my indecipherable ticket, pulled a ten out of my pocket and headed for the register.
“So really, why are you taking all those pictures?” my waitress asked.
“I have this blog, and I take pictures of everything I eat,” I told her honestly.
“That’s kinda cool! How many pictures have you taken?”
“About 60,000 so far.”
She looked at me a little oddly, so I hastily added “but I’m just a hobbyist. I’m more a writer than anything else.”
“Well, I think it’s neat.”
She started to hand back my change, but I deferred it, instead asking for a receipt. Outside I carefully tucked it away and blinked my eyes, turning my head back from looking over my shoulder to the rear-view mirror as I attempted to pull backwards into traffic. The parking lot, after all, is rather small.
Later I’d be talking with one of the folks at the hotel I’d met on the elevator, and mentioned I’d been to Benson’s.
“You try the Chump?”
“The Chump. You know what it is, right?” she prodded.
“Not a clue.”
“It’s not on the menu. I hope you’re going back, you need to try it.”
“Okay then… I will.”
I haven’t been back yet -- I had many other restaurants in the area to check out. I did nearly find myself going at four the next morning, but somehow convinced myself it wasn’t necessary. Benson’s has been there for forty years. It’ll likely be there another 40. I’ll be back.
You'll find Benson's Grill at 2515 Rogers Avenue in Fort Smith. They do take call-in orders, but honestly, why? Go have a seat and a cuppa and a conversation with someone. (479) 782-8181.