words: Tom Wing, Historian and Author
images: courtesy Chuck Raney
My good friend Chuck Raney runs the Facebook page, “If You Ever Lived in Fort Smith.” It is a goldmine of collective memories, old photos, and stimulating discussions of the city’s past. I appreciate Chuck’s work and willingness to share photos and some of the information for this article.
It’s not my intention to cover such places as Constantino’s, The Old South, and Jan’s because they were a bit before my time. Rather, I want to discuss eateries that I remember best, all of which have faded and disappeared. The tastes, aromas, and atmosphere these local places had were unique, and while corporate franchises might try to duplicate them, they mostly fail.
During my days at Northside High School in the early to mid-1980s, we were free to leave at lunchtime as long as we could make it back for class on time. This time constraint limited us to places near the school.
Just a few blocks from campus, across from Darby Junior High School, was Homer and Martha’s. A drive-in with limited seating inside, I remember delectable onion rings and a chicken fried steak plate that always hit the spot. Within walking distance of campus, and behind Vivian’s Bookstore (a favorite place of mine), was the Corner House. Salads, soups, and sandwiches built on Van Hatten’s Bakery breads made it a weekly, sometimes twice-weekly choice. Limited seating made for a somewhat crowded experience, but the food was worth waiting for. The Corner House Special was my favorite: turkey and ham with house-made blue cheese dressing on Van Hatten’s french bread. I wish I could order one now.
Across Rogers Avenue from Northside, and a few blocks down was one of the numerous Porta Family establishments, all run separately by brothers. The Rogers Avenue location was operated by Roger and Mary Porta, while others included Art’s BBQ on Jenny Lind and Albert’s Malt Shop on Grand Avenue. While I remember the BBQ sandwiches on Rogers Avenue, it’s mostly the chili cheese fries that come to mind, which makes me wonder about my memory. Regardless, good eats were always provided by the Portas. Incidentally, news and weather coverage was offered by yet another brother, Pat, who worked for Channel 5.
Down from Porta’s on Rogers Avenue, closer to downtown, was one of the numerous White Spot locations. The White Spots were more grill/café style than drive-in, but the food was similar. Very reasonably priced, limited lunch money could buy plenty of mustard, onion and pickle-topped burgers, handed over in a paper sack that soaked up the secret ingredient of good taste—grease. Breakfast was also served.
Today, we have an abundance of Mexican food options, but that wasn’t always the case. Back then, one of the only Tex-Mex joints in town was Señor Bob’s Tacos. With a location on Grand Avenue, you could order tacos for lunch, but sometimes I opted for a burrito, and even more often the Taco Burger, a seasoned meat and cheese sandwich on a bun.
For a time, I worked Saturdays and sometimes after school delivering prescriptions for Sunnymede Pharmacy. Located on North O Street, this provided many opportunities to enjoy another old-fashioned, neighborhood eatery, Bob’s Sunnymede Drive-In. Bob’s had great shakes and malts, but what I liked best was the signature Big Bob Burger, consisting of two patties, lettuce, tomato, pickle, onion and a generous amount of melted American cheese. What I wouldn’t give to have one today!
To satisfy a sweet tooth, or make for a quick breakfast, Fort Smith was rich with bakeries and donut shops. I ate many maple bars from Slack’s Sweet Shop when Dad would surprise us on his way home from the fire station. He’d also bring us good things from Van Hatten’s including my favorite, Cobblestone Bread. Lightly iced, spiced, and with toasted pecans, Cobblestone Bread was perfect for breakfast, a late-night snack, or dessert. The main thing I remember is it never lasted long in our house.
Lastly, no discussion of vanished food options in Fort Smith would be complete without mentioning the Grand Bakery. From buying post-midnight donuts out the back door to their assortment of incredible Danish (the cream cheese variety was used many times to gain a hall pass or afternoon excuse slip from certain Northside faculty members), everything in the store was wonderful. Nothing compares to the aroma of fresh-baked goods.
These places and the food I ate are part of my fondest memories of growing up in Fort Smith, all of them now gone but never forgotten. What are some of the places that bring back memories for you?