Fort Smith's Diverse Cuisine
Eating Fort Smith
An argument on why the city
is the state’s most culinarily diverse
By Kat Robinson
I’m a Little Rock girl. However, I’ve been fielding assumptions lately that I might be of Fort Smith origins because of the extensive chapter on the city in my new book, Classic Eateries of the Ozarks and Arkansas River Valley. Perhaps I should explain.
Back in my college days at Arkansas Tech University, I developed friends in the Fort Smith area. I even went job hunting in town when I graduated.
But it wasn’t until 2007, when friends of mine invited me to come up and try a restaurant they knew I’d want to include in my newly-started blog, that I really began to appreciate the city for what it has to offer – a vast culinary landscape just waiting to be explored and examined. Fort Smith – a culinary destination? Some may jest, but in the book I cover why the town has more food diversity than any other in Arkansas, as well as share stories about some of the area’s more iconic restaurants.
The reasons are many – but they start with Camp Chaffee. When the military base was conceived in the 1940s, no one could imagine U.S. involvement in World War II. Furthermore, no one could imagine what a single base could do to the restaurant scene. By the time the war was over, Fort Chaffee had influenced not only surrounding communities (including Joe Erker’s grocery store-turned-dance hall that became the Jenny Lind Café) but the soldiers themselves – some of whom came home from Europe with war brides who started eateries of their own.
Such was the case with Al Thone, who was stationed in Germany after the war. He married a girl named Emmy Werner – and learned to cook German food from her and her mother. He returned with his bride and in 1962 Zum Deutschen Eck (The German Corner) opened. Today you can still enjoy those dishes, courtesy of an Italian family restaurant, Taliano’s.
Better times post-war, coupled with the start of the automobile age, spurred on the rise of diners and drive-ins. Ed Walker’s Drive In opened in the late 40s, as did the White Spot Café (now Skinny’s White Spot), followed by the Dairy Freeze on Midland. The legendary Red Barn started serving steaks and tiny biscuits within the stalls of an old horse barn in 1946.
These new restaurants were influenced by motorists who found available transportation and free time a good excuse to hit the open road. Eateries popped up along U.S. highways (Garrison and Midland Avenues in-town), Arkansas 22 (Rogers Avenue) and U.S. Highway 71 (Towson Avenue), catering not only to the ever-growing population but to travelers.
To the north, tourists took US 71 up through the Boston Mountains on sightseeing trips or to watch the Hogs play in Fayetteville. Attractions boomed on 71, including restaurants at the Skyvue Lodge (now a bed and breakfast), Blue Bird Café (now Grandma’s House Café), the Ozark Mountain Smokehouse (a location still exists in Russellville) and the Dairy Dream at Mountainburg, still in operation by the Wilmoth family during the warmer months.
Fort Chaffee was a processing hub for Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees following the Vietnam War, with more than 50,000 passing through the gates. Many of those displaced folks found homes in Fort Smith – which accounts for the proliferation of pho restaurants in the city. In 1980, the military base became a resettlement center for some 25,000 Cuban refugees – and gave the area restaurants like Van Buren’s Cuban Grill.
Other immigrant families have shared their flavors here, too – like the Caldareras with the delightful Taliano’s Italian Restaurant and the Catsavis family’s Greek-influenced George’s Restaurant. The Diamond Head is the city’s long-standing go-to Chinese restaurant. Immigration from south of the border brought Ark-Mex cuisine and authentic Mexican restaurants.
The 1970s and 80s saw a proliferation of new restaurants, including Calico County with its famed cinnamon rolls; the nostalgia-driven Reed’s Twin Burger Drive In and the home-style goodness of Catfish Cove. The town’s manufacturing base and its three-shift schedules led to a revival in the diner culture fed by places like Bob and Ellie’s and Benson’s Grill (and later Lucy’s Diner) – and to donut shops like Irish Maid that keep the strangest hours.
Fort Smith embraces what other Arkansas towns have failed to accept – quickly assimilating to new flavors like Indian, Middle Eastern and Thai. It celebrates them with gusto – I mean, how else can you explain the survival of a Thai doughnut restaurant?
My hometown is just now embracing pho and other Vietnamese dishes, and there’s only good place to get Thai food. Little Rock is far larger than Fort Smith, but our German restaurant didn’t get here until after 2000. We have no great chocolatier like Kopper Kettle Candies nor a good South American restaurant like Rolando’s.
On a purely person to restaurant ratio, there’s nothing quite like Fort Smith for culinary diversity.
Kat Robinson is also the author of the book Arkansas Pie, a Delicious Slice of the Natural State.
Classic Eateries of the Ozarks and the River Valley
is published by The History Press.
Both books are available online.