(now through Nov. 5):
Wed. – Thurs., 11 a.m. – 8 p.m.;
Fri. – Sat., 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.
Spinach-artichoke dip, pan-seared scallops, red snapper, salmon and chicken francese. Desserts alternate, but our four-berry Chambord cake was bonkers. Prime rib is served Friday and Saturday nights.
The new-model opal-colored Cadillac pulled over to the side of the road, and three older faces looked out from the inside. “Are you open?” they asked the couple sitting on the bench in front of the gas station. The man and woman gave them a funny look and explained that, well, they didn’t own the place—and it’d been five years since the gas station had been open. Hearing this, the people in the Cadillac left and went on their way.
Well, wasn’t that just the strangest thing? the couple asked themselves. They didn’t have much time to mull it over, however, before a young family in a minivan pulled up. Then another. And another. Before long, there were trucks pulling off to the side, and there were cars parked in the lot of a restaurant that didn’t exist. That night, the couple, Nick and Marie Bottini, went home and decided, well, maybe there should be a restaurant there. Five months later, there was.
On a Thursday evening some 5 1/2 years later, Nick tells this story as the majority of that evening’s customers are making their way out of the restaurant. He’s removed his floor-length apron, though he keeps the cordless phone attached to his belt. (Cell service is virtually nonexistent around these parts.) The night rush behind him, he now seems somewhat more at ease—however, he says that now, at 54, he’s working harder than he did when he was 30. What’s more, even though the universe had nudged him and his wife to open the restaurant, it certainly hadn’t come easy.
That first winter? Things were tough. By the time they finished renovating the old gas station, it was already November, well past the summer peak of the tourist season on the nearby Buffalo River. However, as he says, the locals were the ones who got them through. They’re the ones who came in, filled the tables, ordered their meals off the large green chalkboard where he used to write everything the restaurant had to offer. And really, they’re the ones who first spread the word—who got people in the door. They’re the reason Nick has yet to spend a dime on advertising.
In fairness, however, it hasn’t taken a lot of convincing. People’ve come for the prime rib and live music on Fridays and Saturdays. They’ve come for the view from the patio, which overlooks a sprawling mountain vista that would be worth the trip alone. They’ve come in droves. They’ve come by car, by truck, by horse. (The second year, Nick remembers, there was a day when they had 24 horses tied up to the trees adjacent to the restaurant.) Oh, and make no mistake: The customers absolutely come for the food.
The spinach-artichoke dip? It’s the sort of stuff you’re supposed to eat with the provided pieces of toast (but secretly eat via spoon). The seafood? Bafflingly fresh for the middle of nowhere (it’s FedEx’d daily from Florida) the salmon and snapper in particular are standouts. And the desserts? Made fresh by Marie every morning (with the exception of the creme brulee, which Nick takes care of).
It’s interesting, though. Unlike many of the other places that have earned such a passionate and far-traveling clientele, the Low Gap Cafe hasn’t been around for decades. For that matter, it hasn’t even been around a decade. However, there’s an important point to be made here. Before, back when he and his wife were sitting on the bench drawing questions about the nonexistent hours of their nonexistent restaurant, the location’s appeal hinged much more on convenience. Now, however, this is the destination.
Finding these places may you have thinking your GPS is on the fritz. (It’s not.) But trust us: It’ll all be worth it
Bean Palace Cafe at War Eagle Mill: It’s a windy drive out to the historic War Eagle Mill, but you’ll be more than rewarded for your efforts at the mill’s third-floor cafe. The signature dish is War Eagle Mill-ground cornbread with smoky pinto beans (hence the cafe’s name), but there’s also a stellar breakfast lineup (pecan-cinnamon pancakes, anyone?) and a noteworthy cobbler. (11045 War Eagle Road, Rogers; (479) 789-5343)
Jenny Lind Country Cafe: If we’re gonna drive out of our way, it might as well be for pie. Especially this pie at this quirky-as-can-be country diner somewhere between Fort Smith and Greenwood. If the Chocolate Joy’s on offer, it’s a must—but we’d also gladly “settle” for a slice of buttermilk. Or whatever else the “Pie Girl” is serving up. (2655 Gate Nine Road, Greenwood; (479) 996-1099)
Oark General Store & Cafe: There’s nary a weekend that goes by that doesn’t find our Instagram feeds filled with snaps from inside this one-stop shop near the Mulberry River, and we can see why—it’s the state’s oldest continually operated store, after all (and quite photogenic, to boot). But it’s the charming cafe that’s the real draw, especially those half-pound, well-worth-the-trip burgers. (117 County Road 5241, Oark; (479) 292-3351)
Pickens Restaurant & Commissary: Turnip greens, squash casserole, fried catfish, deviled eggs, rib-sticking meatloaf: This is grandma-approved, down-home cookin’, served the plate-lunch way on the grounds of the old Pickens plantation. It’ll be hard, but make sure to save room for the coconut meringue pie. (122 Pickens Road, Pickens; (870) 382-5266)