Road warriors this summer can fill up on satisfying fare and plenty of stories at these landmark eateries in Arkansas.
Along Arkansas’s scenic byways and roads are legendary diners with home-style cooking–cafeteria-style, breakfast fare, steakhouses, and barbecue joints–sure to satisfy any craving. So what are you waiting for? Just follow the aroma, and steer your car in the direction of comfort food.
Franke’s Cafeteria, Little Rock
For nearly 100 years, Franke’s has been family-owned. In 1919, C. A. Franke opened a doughnut shop on Little Rock’s West Capitol Avenue. The original cafeteria opened in 1924 and operated until 1960. Several locations were scattered across Arkansas, and today, Franke’s can be found downtown at 400 Broadway and at 11121 N. Rodney Parham, its newest location, and the restaurant we visited.
Sunday is the diner’s busiest day; it’s a popular stop after church services. Hot entrees include slow-cooked tender roast beef, Italian herb-roasted chicken, and turkey with dressing. Eggplant casserole, seasoned turnip greens, and fried okra are hot veggie choices.
The herb-roasted chicken is flavorful and juicy, with crisp, delectable skin. The creamy mac and cheese satisfies as comfort food, and the German chocolate pie is a sweet delight. However, there are 13 pie flavors–including sugar-free varieties–from which to choose.
“Customers get upset if we run out of egg custard pie,” said owner Bill Franke. With that, he hands my husband and me two forks for a taste.
In between table conversation, customers can gaze at a star ceiling motif in the main dining room. Franke, an amateur astronomer, designed the restaurant’s Orion night sky with stars that twinkle when lights are dimmed.
A friendly, dedicated staff and great food keeps customers coming back.
Franke’s hours are from 10:45 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.
The Mean Pig, Cabot
The simple beginnings of The Mean Pig BBQ started in a horse trailer in 1997. Across the street from its original location, owners Buddy and Lori Merritt today have a successful country-style restaurant.
The Mean Pig gained fame when it was featured on The Travel Channel’s Man vs. Food. The show’s host, Adam Richman, attempted and completed The Mean Pig’s Shut-Up Juice Challenge.
“The Shut-Up Juice Challenge involves eating a 1/3-pound medium beef or pork sandwich topped with five ounces of my hottest sauce,” says Buddy Merritt. Customers sign a waiver stating the restaurant isn’t liable for medical issues arising out of the challenge. Successful patrons receive a T-shirt if they can keep the sandwich down for five minutes.
On Saturdays, customers consume more than 400 pounds of meat (pork outsells beef). The staff makes 50 pounds of potato salad and coleslaw and six gallons of pork-and-beans daily.
The original smoker sits out back alongside its replacement wood smoker that was custom-made in Cabot. Ribs are smoked for about six hours. Merritt uses 12–14 secret spices during cooking, and when finished, adds another eight spices, depending on customers’ personal tastes.
I loved the Southern-style pulled pork sandwich with no sauce topped with coleslaw. The meat’s been smoked for 20 hours, and the seasonings bring out flavor that lingers on my taste buds.
“If you can eat it without sauce, it sells itself,” Merritt says.
With the restaurant situated near Little Rock Air Force Base, military personnel are repeat customers. Merritt has watched officers’ children grow up. The base contacts Merritt for large orders, and sometimes, meat and beans are shipped overseas to desert regions.
Award-winning barbecue plaques and framed news clippings touting celebrity visits from Andy Griffith, Billy Bob Thornton, Aerosmith, and others adorn the walls.
The Merritts love what they do. “Working with family every day makes it even better,” Merritt says.
The Mean Pig is located at 3096 Bill Foster Highway. Hours are from 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Tuesday–Friday; 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday; the restaurant is closed Sunday and Monday.
The Pancake Shop, Hot Springs
The minute you eye the neon “open” sign in The Pancake Shop’s window, you know you’re home. Stepping inside, you’re greeted by a friendly waitress and handed a retro-looking menu that states “Delightfully Different.” Vintage buttercream leather benches, emerald-green café chairs, and photographs of thoroughbred horses hung on half-paneled walls exude nostalgia.
The Pancake Shop has served breakfast exclusively since 1940, the year it opened. In 1966, Tom and Ruth Ardman purchased the restaurant. Keely Ardman DeSalvo worked alongside her mother in the mid-1990s, learning the business, and personally greeting every customer who walked through the door. DeSalvo said she’s done just about every duty, especially following her mother’s death in 2004, but admits, “I can’t cook eggs.”
The Pancake Shop has had its share of celebrities in the restaurant. During horseracing season and weekends, customers often line up outside. Manager Tina Shelby says, “In before 8 (a.m.) and no wait.”
But if customers must wait, they’re handed a cup of coffee and directed next door to sample artisan foods at The Savory Pantry, which DeSalvo also owns.
During our visit, we chatted with Cora Easterday, customer and visitor services assistant for the Hot Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“As a first-time mommy, my initial mother-daughter outing was to The Pancake Shop. It’ll be one of those memories from my child’s early years that I’ll never forget,” she says.
By now, our tabletop is covered with three types of pancakes ready for sampling: buckwheat blueberry, apple, and plain buttermilk with blueberries. The award-winning bone-in Petit Jean hamsteaks and pancakes easily fill an entire dinner plate. The decadent apple pancakes, my favorite, remind me of fresh apple pie. Eggs perfectly cooked “over easy” complement the pancakes. I sop up the bright yellow-orange yolks with fresh locally made spicy sausage.
When visiting Hot Springs, customer Heath Shearon stops in every day. “I love their omelets and fantastic atmosphere.”
The Pancake Shop is at 216 Central Ave. Hours are from 6 a.m.–12:45 p.m. daily.
White House Café, Camden
About a 90-minute drive south from Hot Springs along scenic country roads sits Arkansas oldest restaurant, which has been at the same spot since 1907. Above the white brick structure hangs a weathered and peeling sign that reads “ White House Café, Hottest Place in Town.”
Teresa Lampkin and husband, Tommy Vaughan, purchased the iconic restaurant 15 years ago, and said they’ve been coming here since they were kids.
The White House Café still uses the original counter and stools. On the walls, license plates and photographs showcase the café’s evolution. The oldest beer cooler in South Arkansas sits behind the counter. A wrought iron staircase winds to the second floor, where in years past, steaks were exclusively served. Today, patrons throughout the café can enjoy specialty ribeye steaks seared over an open flame with charcoal bricks. Lampkin creates the seasonings for the pork chops and award-winning steaks.
Kitchen manager Ann Butler, an employee since 1983, is proud of her made-from-scratch peach cobbler, dumplings, and banana pudding. Another favorite, hot water cornbread, is a cross between a hot donut and cornbread. One of Butler’s original recipes, it consists of cornmeal, sugar, salt, and baking powder.
My husband ordered a customer favorite, a decadent and juicy double burger with crispy sweet potato fries served with brown sugar butter for dipping. The tender, thick pork chops with light butter were the best I’d ever eaten.
What’s the secret to The White House Café’s longevity?
“Everyone knows everyone. It’s better than a beauty shop,” says Lampkin.
The White House Café is located at 323 S. Adams Ave. Hours are from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday–Saturday; the café is closed on Sunday.
Sheree K. Nielsen is a contributor from Wentzville, Mo.
May/June 2015 Issue
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