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The Ozark Mountains ranging across northern Arkansas are peppered with reasonably priced restaurants where the food is as good as you'll find in any city.

From DeVito's Restaurant just north of Harrison to the remarkable Low Gap Cafe outside Jasper, that town's Ozark Cafe on the square or popular Cliff House Inn just south of Jasper along Scenic Arkansas 7, the visits are well worth one's time and effort.

The most unlikely surprise might be the high level of cuisine at chef Nick Bottini's Low Gap Cafe nestled along Arkansas 74, which even he says resembles a roadside biker bar.

You can't miss the rustic stone building. Parking lots on either side of the two-lane road stay filled with cars and trucks on limited days each week when the screen door opens at 11. It's not unusual for Nick to serve 600 meals in a week.

Bottini is a creative five-star chef trained in New York who crafts gourmet meals alongside understudies in the open kitchen at one end of the cafe's dining room that has but 13 tables.

Nine additional tables are arranged on the covered patio where guests can enjoy music while dining on fare such as Chicken Marsala or Francese, enormous pan-seared scallops, Ahi Tuna and Lobster Francese. There also are five beef choices from filets to fork-tender prime rib and Steak Diane.

It's been a decade since Nick left his position as executive chef at the Horseshoe Canyon Ranch to find a restaurant of his own. He and wife Marie saw an abandoned gas station and sat on a nearby bench staring at it for a while. That's when he decided he could transform the unlikely spot into his unique inspiration.

Any initial reservations about the location soon faded. Like Kevin Costner in "Field of Dreams," Nick built it, and did they ever come. Their motto has become: "If you make it good, they will come."

The Low Gap Cafe has steadily progressed toward legendary status as more people from miles distant learn about the food served behind the door. One couple from Austin, Texas, has been impressed enough to dine each year with Nick.

I usually order perfectly prepared salmon with red bell pepper cream sauce, the prime rib, or Steak Diane topped by a mushroom cracked-pepper demi-glace.

Atop the mountain seven miles south of Jasper, the Cliff House Inn offers a menu of deliciousness at reasonable prices and a view like no other as you gaze for miles across the Grand Canyon of the Ozarks. Should you want to prolong the experience, you can rent a big-view room just below the restaurant.

The Ozark Cafe on the little Jasper square has a history of outstanding country cooking from classic chicken fried steaks to my new favorite, the Volcano Burger. That consists of an open-faced bun with a beef patty on top and smothered in tasty melted cheese that fills your entire plate. The top bun and dressing veggies sit alongside. Not only is it a culinary treat, all that melted cheese is a sight to behold and scarf down.

The Blue Mountain Bakery and Cafe, also on Jasper's square, has emerged as another popular eatery with a delicious country menu that features a wondrous brisket sandwich and memorable cinnamon rolls.

Thirty twisty minutes northward, as travelers traverse Harrison along U.S. 65 en route to Branson and points north, you'll find the fifth-generation family culinary institution called DeVito's, founded in 1986 by the late Jim DeVito.

The restaurant that serves dinner nightly beginning at 5 and lunch on limited days is about a mile off the right side of the highway at Bear Creek Springs (look for the sign). It's become known for the stocked trout pond directly across from the restaurant and all the delicious ways those tender fish can be prepared from almandine to charbroiled.

The bread is sensational and steaks are as tasty and tender as you'll find anywhere. The memorable Italian meals, including sauces, are made from scratch.

Among my DeVito favorites are the trout finger appetizers (not found anywhere else) and the homemade apple pie that always sells out. Joe Devito and his two brothers who work in and supervise the kitchen while managing the business clearly learned well from their father.

Other favorite restaurants in Harrison are the beyond-popular Neighbor's Mill Bakery & Cafe and Jamie's, both along U.S. 65, as well as Marie's at the historic Hotel Seville a block off the square and around the corner from the popular Town House Cafe, where our coffee group meets to effortlessly solve world problems and cure covid-19.

Should travels take you to the towns of Flippin and Bull Shoals near the White River, I strongly recommend a stop at the 178 Club where the ambience in the lounge and the cuisine are outstanding.

The club offers a wide assortment of perfectly prepared meals, including my hands-down favorite, walleye, served anyway you like it.

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.

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Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at [email protected]

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