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As soon as I looked down from the podium and saw the tears in Coy Theobalt's eyes, I knew the award meant something.

I was the emcee for the second annual Arkansas Food Hall of Fame induction ceremony and was sharing my memories of Coy's, the Hot Springs restaurant that burned down in January 2009 on the eve of the thoroughbred race meet at Oaklawn Park. Theobalt grew up watching his parents operate the restaurant, which opened in 1945.

"It was seven days a week for them with no vacations," he said. "It convinced me that I didn't want to do it. It means a lot to our family to see that so many people have fond memories of the restaurant."

Family members came from multiple states after the Food Hall of Fame selection committee decided to add a category known as Gone But Not Forgotten. Cotham's Mercantile at Scott was the inductee, but the other three finalists--Coy's, Klappenbach Bakery at Fordyce and Jacques & Suzanne of Little Rock--also are remembered by thousands of Arkansans.

Growing up in Arkadelphia, Hot Springs was the place my family went to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries and the like. My late father's three favorite restaurants--Coy's, Mrs. Miller's and Mollie's--are all gone. I sometimes would be allowed to tag along with my parents for anniversary dinners. When I think of Coy's, I remember valet parking, Mountain Valley Water in big green bottles, booths with the names of certain families attached to them (I aspired to have a booth named after me one day, a goal I never achieved) and warm crackers dipped in house dressing. If it were during the Oaklawn race meet, you could expect a long wait to be seated in the restaurant at 300 Coy St., just off Grand Avenue.

Cotham's also met its fate due to a fire. It broke out early on a Tuesday morning in May of last year and destroyed the century-old building that hung out over Horseshoe Lake. The structure once housed a general store that served farmers in a thriving area of cotton plantations and pecan orchards. In 1984, the store began serving lunch and became a favorite of then-U.S. Sen. David Pryor. It was Pryor who first told me about Cotham's in the late 1980s when I was covering Washington for the Arkansas Democrat. I made the trip to Scott for the famous hubcap burger on my next visit to Arkansas. I instantly was hooked by the place that used the motto "where the elite meet to eat."

In 1999, Cotham's in the City opened at the corner of Third and Victory streets near the state Capitol. The building once had housed the capital city's first fern bar (yes, they were all the rage in the 1970s), a TGI Friday's. During the decade I spent working in the governor's office, I made frequent walks down the hill for lunch at the Little Rock location. The menu was the same, but there's nothing quite like sitting near farmers on the banks of an oxbow lake at Scott. There are no plans to rebuild the Scott location.

With the opening of Jacques & Suzanne in 1975 atop what's now the Regions Bank Building in downtown Little Rock, the Continental Cuisine team of Paul Bash, Ed Moore, Louis Petit and Denis Seyer set the stage for other quality restaurants such as Graffiti's, Restaurant 1620, the Purple Cow and Alouette's. Their former employees opened additional establishments such as Cafe St. Moritz and Andre's. These men were to restaurateurs what Frank Broyles was to assistant football coaches who went on to become college and professional head coaches: the base of a tree with numerous limbs.

It's fair to say that Jacques & Suzanne took dining out in Arkansas to a new level. Arkansans accustomed to pork barbecue and fried catfish learned about escargot, caviar and souffles. The dishes were prepared by classically trained chefs, and the kitchen served as a sort of graduate school for those working there. It wasn't an accident that Bash, Moore, Petit and Seyer won the Proprietor of the Year award during the first Arkansas Food Hall of Fame induction ceremony last year. Jacques & Suzanne closed in 1986, but its influence remains strong.

Often when a place that I consider an Arkansas classic closes, it's because the owners are tired. As Theobalt noted, it's a tough business. Klappenbach Bakery is an example of that. The bakery and restaurant, which for 36 years graced the downtown of the Dallas County seat, closed in September 2011. After famed college football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant, it was one of the best-known things to come out of Fordyce.

There are certain places that come to define a town. Klappenbach was one of those places. Norman Klappenbach was 80 and his wife Lee was 77 at the time of the closure. Son Paul, who was 47 at the time, grew up in the business and spent the seven years prior to the closure working full time there. He came in at 3 a.m. and said the 65-hour workweeks had sapped his energy. He had been unable to find an assistant baker.

When the hardworking owners of such establishments die or retire, there's often no one to take their place. The children have no interest in long hours and limited revenue. Buyers can be hard to find, especially in rural areas of south and east Arkansas that are losing population. Once they're gone, they're gone for good.

We need to give our business to such independent establishments while we still can. In large parts of rural Arkansas, we're left these days with only convenience stores selling fried chicken and catfish under heat lamps.

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 03/31/2018

Print Headline: Gone, not forgotten

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