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Monday, June 17, 2013

Williams Tavern: 181 Year Heritage Continues.

Dine in one of the state's oldest restaurant buildings when you head to Historic Washington State Park near Hope. Let's take a look inside William's Tavern Restaurant.
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.

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.

But the oldest restaurant building where a restaurant operates today? That honor 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.

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.
Today Williams Tavern is open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. 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).

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.

On Sundays, there's a buffet that features Arkansas favorites. The menu changes from week to week, but you'll often find things such as fried chicken and spaghetti, squash, corn and cakes available.

There are also plenty of other items. We were surprised on one visit to encounter a massive knife-worthy Bowie Burger served on Texas toast - which not only brings the dishes to the 21st century but ackowledges the Arkasnas love for massive, tasty burgers.

And there are other Arkansas favorites that have recently made it onto the menu - such as the state's own creation, the fried pickle. Hunter has to have her share when she goes.

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

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)


The desserts at the Williams Tavern Restaurant have become famous. I have been asked many times for that Earthquake Cake recipe (which is why it's here) and I hear raves and reviews over the restaurant's strawberry cake.

And then there was the time I came through with a bunch of journalists and a seasonal dish had crept onto the menu. That day, 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

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.

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.

Williams Tavern Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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