Old country cafes and diners are precious. As time passes, many of these places have disappeared, to be replaced with chain operations or sometimes nothing at all. Even the smallest communities need a local hub to enjoy good, handmade vittles.
In this respect, Belleville is in good stead. The tiny community west of Danville on Arkansas Highway 10 is just a few blocks of very neatly kept yards and shops, centered around Memory Lane Cafe, an edifice that has grown past its original structure. The restaurant dates back to 1935, and it's been in almost continuous operation since. Even during the pandemic, though it closed for a few weeks, it was rapidly opened back up with a new drive-thru window.
It's fortunate, especially because of the quality of the food. Thanks to being the only operation in town, Memory Lane Cafe offers all the meals and is open in-between mealtimes. Breakfast is served every day until 9 a.m., with an emphasis on omelets and pancakes. Lunches are a combination of sandwiches, burgers and plate lunch specials - the latter of which changes every day and often features variations on Mexican-style dishes, like burritos, taco salads and quesadillas. A small but favorite-packed selection of dinner plates is also available, with chicken fried steak or chicken, ribeye, boiled or fried shrimp and shrimp scampi all good choices.
And that's also where you find the hamburger steak. Many restaurants just take a frozen hamburger patty and serve it with gravy for the dish. Not here. Somewhere between a third and a half a pound of fresh ground beef is seasoned and hand-patted, fried with onions, and brought to the table with your choice of potato, brown gravy and Texas toast - after, of course, a cursory bowl of salad with tomato and shredded cheese. The meat is juicy, not too greasy, and easy to cut and eat, and it's obviously something that has had great care taken in making it. This makes it irresistible.
What's more irresistible, though, are the desserts - at least a dozen at any time, housed in cases and refrigerators and very reasonably priced. On my most recent visit, I saw other diners choose banana pudding that came scooped and delivered in pretty little metal dessert bowls. The case contained bundt cakes, cinnamon rolls and several pies, including buttermilk, pecan, chocolate chip, and a couple of types of meringue. The menu board advertised peanut butter pie, buttermilk pound cake, pineapple upside down cake, chocolate cake with white icing, and a selection of fried pies - the only desserts, I was told, that the restaurant did not make in-house. I chose on this visit a slice of coconut meringue pie, which came on a buttery crust, with a good ratio of custard to meringue, melt-in-your-mouth soft, not too sweet, a perfect end to a meal.
Just because I've had the experience before, I should share that all of the desserts I've had at this place over the years are spot-on. Memory Lane Cafe offers one of the few possum pies in the state that has cherries instead of chocolate in one of its layers, and it is divine. The chocolate cake with chocolate icing, when it's available, is very freshly made and soft. And you can never go wrong with that banana pudding.
Places like Memory Lane Cafe are far between these days, but if you are traveling in the Mount Magazine or Danville area, it's worth your while to stop in for a bite and a spell. If you're in the area, you'll find it at 200 North Main Street - you can see it from Arkansas Highway 10. If you need to know the daily special before you go, call (479) 493-2414. Or check out the Facebook page.
Kat Robinson is the author of 12 book on food in Arkansas, including Another Slice of Arkansas Pie: A Guide to the Best Restaurants, Bakeries, Truck Stops and Food Trucks for Delectable Bites in The Natural State - where the cherry possum pie is featured. Be sure to check back later this week for the 2023 Arkansas State Fair Food Guide, which Kat has been covering annually since 2007.