Modern Americana in a historic city.
By Hope S. Philbrick
Our Eat & Burn series showcases destinations through their cuisine and inviting ways to burn off the calories.
I stopped in Hot Springs, Arkansas, midway through a multi-week road trip that encompassed several cities in multiple states. The best meals of that trip were consumed in Hot Springs, and it wasn’t just one meal but every meal that impressed. Hot Springs’ culinary scene rocks: Who knew?
Then again, the city is accustomed to keeping secrets. During Prohibition and until gambling was legalized, Hot Springs was a haven where casinos and speakeasies lurked behind secret walls. Folks from across the nation came to Hot Springs under the “pretense” of visiting spas—they really did enjoy the bathhouses, of course, during the day—and then slipped behind the veil to party at night.
To this day, Hot Springs National Park and the historic bathhouses grab most Hot Springs tourism headlines, but its restaurants are the tastiest reason to visit. Yes, the other stuff is great—you should not miss the park or bathhouses, and be sure to take time to delve into the city’s history, too—but don’t skip a meal.
These are great odds: You may take one bath every day, but you get to eat at least three meals a day!
Every restaurant I visited was operated by people passionate about their business and their home. Their love for food and community came through every bite. The cuisine wasn’t trendy or innovative, it was simply damn good.
Belli Arti Ristorante
719 Central Ave.
Husband and wife team Penny and Joe Gargano are the dynamic duo behind the award-winning Belle Arti Ristorante, which celebrates 15 years of success in Hot Springs. You’d have to cross the Atlantic to get Italian food any more authentic than this: Chef Joe was born and trained in Italy. “He worked in restaurants in Italy and London before coming to America in his mid-20s because he was interested to learn the American concept of Italian cooking,” says his wife. The couple met—she “grew up in the restaurant business,” she says—married, and owned restaurants in Manhattan, New York before moving South. “Arkansas has been so gracious to us,” she says. The food at Belli Arti is all-natural. “Joe is allergic to anything not natural,” Penny insists. Family recipes form the basis of the menu. Some dishes like Strawberry Valentino Salad, created for Valentine’s Day years ago, have become so popular they remain on the menu indefinitely. Home-made pastas are a specialty, with sauce options from red to vodka to alfredo, all prepared fresh daily. Dishes like Chicken Mare Monti, Shrimp Francese and Veal Piccata equally satisfy. Have a specific craving? Chef Joe will do his best to accommodate. Don’t miss the Italian wedding soup.
408 Central Ave.
Rita Smith, owner and operator of BubbaLu’s, has adored restaurants all of her life. Her mother owned a restaurant between Las Vegas and Los Angeles and she remembers that “everyone from Elvis to Bogart would stop in since a lot of cowboy movies were made just four miles from Mom’s restaurant.” Back then as a youth, she was in charge of mixing the malts and shakes. She moved to Hot Springs 20 years ago with her husband Llewellyn (aka “Lu”), a fifth-generation Californian. “It’s a great place to live in the middle of the country,” she says of her adopted hometown. For 12 years she operated a hot dog cart, but now stays put in a restaurant on the main street in historic downtown. Her husband designed the space with a retro diner vibe. Belly up to the bar and order a classic diner pick like a hamburger, hot dog, fries or onion rings, and chocolate malt for a nostalgic Americana flavor. “I aim for over-the-top quality,” says Smith. “My goal is to be consistent.”
The Ohio Club
336 Central Ave.
If I had a dollar for every time a restaurateur told me his dish was the best of its kind, I could buy a car (at least). Rarely does the boast meet expectations. This is a notable exception: While I perused the menu, owner Mike Pettey sat down at my table and said, “The Ohio Club serves the best cheeseburger. All the ingredients are the best that I can buy. Quality and consistency is the goal. We use a ciabatta roll, a custom blend of beef that’s never been frozen, pepper bacon… I created the topping combinations myself. It’s the best. Period. I’ll go up against anybody, not just in Hot Springs, but anywhere.” He paused, took a swig of cola, and then added, “The Rueben, too. Our menu isn’t extensive, but everything on it is the best.” Yeah, right, I thought, as he walked me around the two-level space and shared some of The Ohio Club’s rich history: First opened in 1905—and thus billed as “Arkansas’ Oldest Bar”—during Prohibition and through 1967 when gambling was illegal in the state, it hid a casino and bar behind a cigar shop front. It’s the only remaining saloon among the original illegal casinos that remains open. In its heyday, everybody who was anybody stopped here including Al Capone, Bugsy Segel, Lucky Luciano, Babe Ruth, Mae West, Sammy Davis Jr. and many more. In keeping with its past, live entertainment is still performed seven nights a week—“mainly classic rock and blues,” says Pettey. “As big a name as we can afford to bring in.” After the tour I sat down, ordered a burger—I went with the one named The Ohio Burger, described as “a burger the owner’s way,” despite the fact that its topping combo of pepper jack cheese, bacon, lettuce, tomato, onion ring and hot mustard would not have been my first choice—plus a Rueben. In short order they were delivered and I took a bite of each. And my taste buds were amazed. Now, I am not prepared to state absolutely that these are the best burger and Rueben I’ve ever eaten in my life—I’ve enjoyed many contenders—but it’s been a few weeks since my dinner at The Ohio Club and even with that time to mull it over, I haven’t been able to name any that are specifically, significantly better. Plus, I keep regretting that my stomach prevented me from polishing both off on my own…. So, yeah, they are damn good.
Best of all: The Ohio Club is for adults only! 21 Plus Salute!
216 Central Ave.
Family owned and operated since 1940, this restaurant has a good-old-days vibe and was recently featured in Garden & Gun magazine as one of the top ten breakfast spots in the South. The menu is traditional: The restaurant celebrates its 75th anniversary next year and the menu has remained essentially unchanged from opening day. Orange juice is squeezed fresh each morning. Coffee cups get hot refills often. Pancakes are served with butter and maple syrup that’s been warmed up for you. Everything is made to order. Blueberry pancakes are a best-seller. But I opted for a buckwheat pancake and it proved to be the lightest, airiest buckwheat pancake I’ve ever had. My dining companions opted for eggs which, by all appearances, were cooked to perfection.
Superior Bathhouse Brewery & Distillery
329 Central Ave.
I visited before this place was fully up and running, but can see that it has a lot of potential. And that’s a good thing, since owner Rose Cranson signed a 55-year lease, so failure is not an option. Located in a historic bathhouse (hence the name), Superior has a classically trained chef in the kitchen. Cranson will lead the brewing and distilling efforts, though she admits brewing is the first priority (distilling will come farther into the future). She plans to have her first beers available by Oktoberfest, though construction delays may mean that “it will be Oktoberfest, whatever month it is,” she admits. (The website says the brewery “will come on line by Late Fall 2013”; I visited summer 2014 and it wasn’t operational yet—but equipment was getting installed.) Already, craft beers from other breweries are available by the glass or in tasting flights, though it will be most fun to sample brews made here. Cranson aims to make beer in the British style, “I love British ales, porters, stouts, ESBs, IPAs,” she says. “I lived in Manchester, England for 14 months.” Why put a brewery at the edge of a National Park? “Great beverages require great water and great water is the reason Hot Springs became America’s first resort,” says Cranson. “Hot Springs is famous for its spring water and the water is uniquely drinkable—usually hot spring water is non potable.” In 2011, the National Park Service sought to lease three vacant bathhouses, looking for companies to re-purpose the historic buildings and provide new ways for visitors to enjoy the thermal spring water. Cranson’s proposal was among those approved. If smiles are an indicator of success, there’s nothing to worry about: Cranson grins ear to ear.
In Hot Springs, the food is too good not to clean your plate. Fortunately, finding fun ways to burn off calories comes naturally.
Hike Hot Springs National Park, the oldest unit in the national park system, set aside as a reservation in 1832: This is before the National Park Service was established in 1916, so while it was not technically named a national park until March 4, 1921 (the 18th national park designated), locals will passionately defend their claim to being “first.” It’s undisputedly the smallest national park at 5,500 acres. There are 23 different trails ranging in length from 528 feet to 10 miles each—mix and match to create your own ideal itinerary. The park is in the Zig Zag Mountains on the eastern edge of the Ouachita Mountains. Music Mountain is the highest point in the park and the center of a horseshoe-shaped ridge anchored by Sugarloaf and West mountains at each end. The hot springs are located on the lower western side of Hot Springs Mountain. Dense forests are home to oak, hickory and short-leaf pines as well as an array of flowering trees including redbud, dogwood and southern magnolias.
Climb the 216-foot Hot Springs Mountain Tower, 1,256 feet above sea level, to take in the 140 miles of surrounding countryside, including Hot Springs National Park and the Ouachita Mountains.
Stroll historic Bathhouse Row, stopping to tour the Fordyce Bathhouse. Then hike the Grand Promenade to the Hot Water Cascade, which shows how the area looked 200 years ago before any of the bathhouses were built. (Today, to prevent contamination, green metal boxes cover most of the park’s 47 springs.) Then backtrack to the Arkansas Walk of Fame and learn some state history as you go.
Bring an empty water bottle or jug to Hot Springs. The park collects 700,000 gallons a day for use in the public drinking fountains and bath houses. Downtown jug fountains dispense the famed water where you can fill up for free!
Where To Stay…
The Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa
239 Central Ave.
Hot Springs, AR 71901
Odds of Encountering Children: Likely, since Hot Springs National Park is a key draw and open to all. But visit during the week when school is in session and the odds of an adults-only experience skyrocket: I saw no children during my visit. With its gangster past and spa/bath house slant, Hot Springs has long been an adult playground.
– Photo Credits: Garganos courtesy The Sentinel-Record/Mara Kuhn; Ohio food images courtesy The Ohio Club; Cranson courtesy Superior Bathhouse Brewery & Distillery; remainder © HSP Media LLC
Featured products, services and/or travel arrangements may have been complimentary in part or in full; this affords the research opportunity but does not sway opinion.