As I write, we are in the midst of a national health crisis and the bitter pill some have been forced to swallow is business and job loss.
This is devastating to local restaurants and especially for our independents, including those on “The List”. There is the real possibility that some of these will not survive. Top Chef judge and restaurateur Tom Colicchio estimates 75% of independent restaurants will close in New York City. Many restaurant workers have lost their jobs and we hope that our government will do everything it can to support them.
There is something we can do to help. Support our favorite restaurants by ordering take-out curbside or home delivery. Tip generously like you were dining in. Call for federal support for lease and mortgage moratoriums as well as interest free loans and subsidies. Support the call for streamlining and extending unemployment benefits and sick pay for those that contract the virus. Cooperate and follow guidelines for self-quarantine and social distancing.
The next few months are critical and will be extremely tough, but I believe we are resilient, and as a nation we will emerge from this stronger than ever before.
It’s been two decades since we and Fort Smith mutually adopted one another, so I approached my list with more than the usual circumspection. When we arrived, restaurants were dry, 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, and grab a bite of lunch along the way.
Fort Smith – The List
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. It’s also where you get a well-made cold, strong 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, low country boils, shrimp and etouffee are popular, but always ask about the daily specials. Fresh fish with special sauces and toppings go fast.
Doe’s Eat Place $$$
This is a carnivore’s dream, with big, juicy, properly cooked slabs of meat. Filets, porterhouse and t-bones abound. Order for yourself or a steak large enough to share. Three pound sirloin anyone? They are licensed by the original Doe’s in Greenville, Mississippi and the locals do justice to their recipes. Try some sauteed mushrooms or tamales while you’re there.
I go here for street tacos, tortas, flautas and sopas because they are as authentic as they come. It’s inexpensive and tiny, with only five or six tables. Unfortunately, there’s no cerveza, but there are two coolers full of mexican soft drinks. I wish I could grab a cold Victoria here, but that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make for the food.
Rialto is a recent addition to the Fort Smith food scene, but helmed by two long time players, Chef James Thomas and co-owner Keith Jeremiah. Go here for the sumptuous osso buco or J.T.’s signature shrimp and grits. They make great cocktails and they’re open for lunch.
Rib Room $-$$
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.
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.
This gem features North Indian Punjabi cuisine and curries are their specialty. My favorite is palak gosht (goat 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.
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 picatta, parmigiana, marsala and florentine. All the pastas you need are there including spaghetti, ravioli, manicotti and fettucini, but I most frequently choose the canneloni, with extra alfredo sauce of course. Don’t forget to enjoy a glass of Paisano with your meal.
21 West End $$$
21 opened in 2007 and is the anchor of fine dining here. Chef Paul Capel joined the team in ’13 and with owner Kevin Dorey, ramped it up another notch. They offer a seasonal menu based on traditional favorites with some modern twists. This is where you go to impress a visitor, for a birthday, anniversary or other celebratory event.
Bars – The List
This is the short list of establishments that 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.
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 welcome too. 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.
Join the crew on the east side of the bar to watch Jeopardy, if you are 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 and a shuffleboard table. Everybody has a Papa’s story, but don’t believe for a minute what happens there, stay’s there.
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 at two locations. The Fort Chaffee brewhouse is down the street from where Elvis got his hair cut and the taproom is downtown next to A.J.’s Oyster House. They have 62 taps where you can always find something you like.
There is regular entertainment, like Who Wants to be a Millionaire night, but my favorite is Brews and Hymns. You read that right. We went there to enjoy singing church hymns WHILE WE DRANK BEER! Watching random people stumble in and stare at us like we were from Mars was a bonus. We closed with “This Little Light of Mine” while holding our iPhones lit and aloft like it was a rock concert. You can’t do this in Iran. America, what a great country!