It’s been more than two decades since we and Fort Smith mutually adopted one another, so I approached this with more than usual circumspection. Restaurants were dry when we arrived, then progressed to “private clubs” and finally became wet as the law caught up with current mores. That began a restaurant boom. We’re a town of only 90,000 give or take, but we have many independent eateries worthy of a fine meal.
The dining scene continues to grow and newcomers are pushing the old establishments to up their game. That’s a win for the dining community. It depends on the occasion and what tickles our fancy at a given moment, but all of these are on our regular rotation. They are in strict alphabetical order, because there is no such thing as anonymity, and I don’t want to look over my shoulder and wonder what might happen when I start the car.
Visiting Fort Smith
Founded in 1817 at the confluence of the Arkansas and Poteau rivers, Fort Smith was the gateway to the wild, wild west. Nothing has changed since then. In fact, I can see Oklahoma from my house!
There’s plenty to see and do while waiting for a dinner reservation. Visit the U.S. Marshals National Museum and learn how they helped tame the west. Tour the courtroom of Hanging Judge Isaac Parker and see where justice was served at the gallows 79 times. Take a walking tour to see the murals and sculptures of the Unexpected Project created by international artists.
Fort Smith – The List
A.J.’s is thriving with indoor and patio dining. Lunch and dinner service 11 AM – 9 PM Tuesday and Wednesday, 11 AM – 10 PM – Thursday – Saturday
This is Cajun casual in the historic Brunwick Place building. On any given late afternoon you will find local barflies congregating after work because the drinks include a generous pour at a fair price. That’s important to me because I love a cold, well-made martini.
Fresh gulf oysters on the half shell are always available and you might bite into a huge pearl as I did. If you prefer baked, they offer rockefeller, bienville and buffalo style. Po’ boys, crawfish boils, shrimp and etouffee are popular, but always ask about the daily specials. Fresh fish with special sauces and toppings go fast.
Take-out and indoor dining, 10 AM – 3 PM seven days per week.
I go here for street tacos, tortas and flautas because they are as authentic as they come. It’s inexpensive and tiny, with only five or six tables. Unfortunately, there’s no cerveza, but there are two coolers full of Mexican soft drinks. I wish I could grab a cold Victoria here, but that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make for the food.
Chef/Owner Jason Haid opened his exciting new restaurant in the Fort – finally. Its’ debut is a year later than planned thanks to a little thing called covid-19, but that only made the arrival better.
There are many things to like, from the fresh new building and modern decor to the ample outdoor patio space and fountain. The open kitchen allows you to observe the team at work and drinks are made at the integrated bar next to the main dining room.
Given all that, the food is the star of the show and the prices make dining here a great value.
Indoor and patio dining. Lunch and dinner service.
Rialto is helmed by two long time players, Chef James Thomas and co-owner Keith Jeremiah. Dine here for the sumptuous specials like osso buco and lobster on risotto, or J.T.’s signature shrimp and grits.
Rib Room $-$$
Indoor and patio dining.
Founded by the late Bill Neumeier, their specialty is “dry” ribs, seasoned and smoked to perfection, but full of juicy goodness. Yes, you can have them with barbecue sauce, but either way don’t forget the fries and a cold beer. Giant baked potatoes, a legacy of the defunct Coney Island, are also on the menu. Betcha you can’t eat a whole one.
Indoor dining and take-out. Lunch and dinner service seven days a week.
This is Ecuadorean cuisine from Rolando Cuzco. Start with home-made guacamole, tamales or taquitos with chorizo and pickled onions (my favorite) and then move on to quesadillas, tacos, enchiladas or a Don Juan burrito as big as your head. Eat lunch here and plan on a siesta.
Indoor dining and takeout. Lunch and dinner service Monday through Saturday.
This gem features North Indian Punjabi cuisine and curries are their specialty. My favorite is palak lamb (lamb in spinach curry), but it’s hard to pass up the chicken shahi korma, mixed grill or his BBQ hotlinks. Raj and his staff will prepare anything you ask, and he likes to experiment. Don’t be surprised if you look up to see him by your table with a little something extra. We were thrilled with the surprise M&M stuffed naan for dessert.
Indoor dining. Limited patio dining and take-out. Dinner service Monday through Saturday.
This is a fifty year old, 4th generation tradition in the Fort, serving home-style southern Italian favorites. All the usual suspects are on the menu like chicken and veal piccatta, parmigiana, marsala and florentine. All the pastas you need are there including spaghetti, ravioli, manicotti and fettuccini, but I most frequently choose canneloni, with alfredo sauce of course. Don’t forget to enjoy a glass of Paisano with your meal.
21 West End $$$$
Indoor dining, dinner service only.
21 is ancient in restaurant years, continuously operating since 2004. Upon the departure of chef Paul in 2020, owner Kevin Dorey steered the kitchen back to a menu focused on traditional favorites like filets with optional sauces and toppings. Renovated with smart, white leather booths, it’s popular for romantic dinners and celebratory events.
Bars – The List
These establishments offer a unique opportunity to enjoy fine drink, and maybe a little food to go with it. You’ll be hard pressed to find venues better than these anywhere else, period.
Indoor seating only. Evening service only.
This is a special place if you love cocktails and especially so if you love cigars. The toney interior, replete with leather lounge furniture, a performance stage and a giant TV screen sports room make this the best man cave you can imagine, and ladies are also welcome. It’s fitted with the ultimate in air conditioning technology, completely exchanging the air every 4 minutes. That makes it non-smoker friendly. Purchase a cigar in their walk-in humidor, or rent a secure drawer for your own private stash.
Indoor and outdoor patio seating. Evening service only.
Join the crew on the east side of the bar to watch Jeopardy, if you’re willing to abide by their rules. If your cellphone interrupts the show, you will pay for the next round. Cold beer and great pizza is their calling card, as well as a few tv’s, pool and shuffleboard tables. Everybody has a Papa’s story, but don’t believe for a minute what happens there, stay’s there.
Indoor and limited outdoor seating. Dinner service only.
Chef Jasmine serves really good food that threatens to force me to move UnCork’d up to the restaurant category.
Indoor and outdoor spaces give you options where to enjoy wines from the 32 tap cruvet system. Slip in your card and choose between 1, 3 and 6 ounce pours. Choose from tapas or a limited full plate menu if you’re hungry and prepare to enjoy yourself for a short while that might turn into a full evening.
FSBC are local brewers with a lot of good things going on. The Fort Chaffee brewhouse is down the street from where Elvis got his hair cut and they deliver!.
There is regular entertainment, like Who Wants to be a Millionaire night, but my favorite is Brews and Hymns. You read that right. We enjoyed singing church hymns WHILE WE DRANK BEER! Watching random people stumble in and stare at us like we were from Mars was a bonus. Closing with “This Little Light of Mine” we held our iPhones lit and aloft like it was a rock concert. You can’t do this in Iran. America, what a great country!