Garrett is on vacation, so instead of the new stuff at restaurants in your neighborhood, you get what is – well, not old, but let’s say venerable… and traditional… and charming. Your guide will be Kat Robinson, one of Arkansas’ most famous food influencers, who is the author of a new book called “Arkansas Dairy Bars: Neat Eats & Cool Treats”.
Robinson produces books faster than you can say “sundae with a icing on the cake,” but this one just might be his best if you’re looking for a travel guide to some of the state’s original innovators.
“Today we’re celebrating the new line of craft beer and sodas and culinary wonders,” she says, “but dairy bars, that’s where the craft never really went away. “
As many of us remember – from real life or from the “Happy Days” TV series – the restaurants Robinson calls “dairy bars” were “the hub of high school date nights, or or [townspeople would] land after a local football game. Being able to hang out while you wait for your order to pass through the window, spending time with people outside chatting or throwing a Frisbee, or comparing cars – it’s a great way to remember times gone by.
And the food ?
“Well, burgers and ice cream never go out of fashion,” says Robinson, author, TV host, editor, graphic designer, former news producer and experimental historian. “You can go almost anywhere and get a burger that’s exactly the same you’d get in three states, of course. But one that’s hand-fondled, cooked by someone who’s become an expert on the grill? Soaked ice cream cones?
“Breaking bread together is in many ways its own trigger for creating memories. “
So here is for your pleasure to investigate two of his selections in the river valley:
Bonnie’s Dairy Freeze
5400 Midland Boulevard in Fort Smith
Since the 1940s, this made-to-order drive-through has served a variety of burgers, hot dogs and frozen delicacies. The original building faced Midland Avenue and offered eight burgers for the dollar.
The restaurant’s reputation is based on its wide range of ice creams and excellent burgers of all kinds, with 11 different burgers on the menu. [But] ice cream is the real star here. Dipped cones come in three flavors: chocolate, butterscotch and cherry. Sweet service is available in chocolate, vanilla and twist. The Peanut Cluster Parfait tops the table for ice cream specialties – hot fudge and peanuts on a soft serving with whipped cream, nuts and a cherry on top. Banana Fudge Sundae and Strawberry Shortcake Sundae are both big sellers. Shake flavors include traditional flavors as well as cappuccino and peanut butter fudge, and any milkshake can be malted.
The yellow umbrella
1608 Greenwood Avenue in Fort Smith
Right next to Ballman Elementary’s Greenwood is this tiny but distinctive structure that offers burgers, ice cream, and snow cones during the week. The Yellow Umbrella has changed little since it opened in 1957, when James Beasley built the stand right next to his small store, naming it the Tastee-Freez Drive In.
The hamburger shack became well known for its inexpensive little burgers, great lemonade, and double ice cream cone that had two sides for two scoops. Today, ice cream is soft, vanilla, chocolate and twist. The burgers are still mashed on the grill. Hot dogs, chili dogs, corn dogs, and nachos are all available, as are sundaes, shakes, and snocones. But they are only available between 10:30 a.m. and 4:15 p.m. Monday through Friday.
You can order “Arkansas Dairy Bars” from Robinson’s website, store.tontipress.com. Highly recommend – and stretchy pants!
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