Forty years ago this year, the Arkansas Times first asked its readers to vote on their favorite restaurants. That kind of history makes our annual Readers Choice restaurant poll the gold standard among an array of latecomers by other publications.

To celebrate the anniversary, here are some memorable quotes, factoids and other odds and ends from the last four decades:

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A little historical context

From the intro to the first Readers Choice issue in July 1981:

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“Over the years, perhaps no activity has occupied as much of man’s attention as the getting and serving of food: not sex, not religion, not even war. First, man was a gatherer, then a hunter, and finally a farmer who raised crops and animals that made their way to their board by dint of the plow or the hatchet. Way back there, it didn’t matter so much how a meal was prepared: a Neanderthal was tickled with a loin chop just off the hoof, with little or no roasting.”

Pie queen

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In January 1984, Bob Lancaster profiled Ruby Jones, 81, who had worked from 5 a.m.-9 p.m. six days a week at the Jones Cafe between Cottondale and Linwood for 32 years (and 10 years before that at the Central Grill in Pine Bluff): 

“Like most great artists, Mrs. Jones doesn’t have much to say about her art. She makes pies. They’re good. People eat them and she makes more. … About all you’ll get out of her about the art is this: ‘If a pie don’t have a good shell, it won’t be worth a flip.’ ” 

Trend alert!

From Jan. 27, 1994:

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“The coffeehouse explosion has arrived in Arkansas, finally, after its birth in mid-’80s Seattle. It’s not quite as ubiquitous here as in the Pacific Northwest, where rugged crossroads general stores wave big banners proclaiming ‘espresso’ right next to signs for Red Man and live bait.”

Among those profiled was Arsaga’s in Fayetteville, which has been open since 1992.

Pizza history

Doug Smith, writing Jan. 31, 2003, explores the history of pizza in Arkansas. He concludes that many people who attended the University of Arkansas in the 1950s and early 1960s had their first pizza at George’s Majestic Lounge in Fayetteville. More:

“It may come as a surprise to young people, but pizza is not indigenous to Arkansas, not like okra or banana pudding. Once, a time within living memory, there was no pizza. …

“It’s widely believed, by members of the Bruno family of Little Rock among others, that the first pizza in Arkansas was served up by Bruno’s Little Italy. ‘We started selling pizza in Levy in 1947,’ Vince Bruno says. …

“So one could get a pizza in Little Rock by the late ’40s, but the writer can attest that through the ’50s, there was no pizza in Searcy, nor most other Arkansas towns.

Hot Springs was exceptional, as usual. Little Rock advertising executive Paul Johnson, who grew up in Hot Springs, says there was a pizza place in the spa city in the ’50s, on Central Avenue, near the south end of Bathhouse Row. Long gone, its name may have been ‘Tony’s.’

“Like Dean Martin, ‘They called it pizza pie,’ Johnson said. ‘You could play the slot machines while you waited for your pizza.’ ”

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Still searching for answers

In the Feb. 9, 2011, issue, Lindsey Millar asked a series of questions about mobile vendor Hot Dog Mike:

“Why does Hot Dog Mike have more than 1,000 Twitter followers? Why does Hot Dog Mike sell T-shirts? Why does Hot Dog Mike appear on the evening news, on two networks no less, every time he unveils a new hot dog creation? And, ultimately: Why are Hot Dog Mike and his small hot dog cart the most exciting culinary development in Little Rock since the birth of cheese dip?”

Meat!

In the Jan. 30, 2020, issue Lindsey Millar put together an oral history of Doe’s Eat Place. Past owner and longtime FOB George Eldridge talked about former President Bill Clinton’s embrace of veganism.

“The last time I saw him, I hugged him. I felt like I was hugging a skeleton. I’ve got a doctor up at the Mayo Clinic who’s a vegan. He’s alway telling me you need to eat from the stalk. I said, “I’ve got a buddy that’s a vegan, he’s probably the most famous vegan in the world, and he looks like hell. He gonna dry up and blow away. So you can take that vegan shit and stick it where the sun don’t shine.” 

40 years of winners

Here is a record of winners in two of the top categories in Central Arkansas, best overall and best new. Many of the winners are no longer with us. It’s a stark reminder, in these tremendously difficult times for restaurants, how fragile the industry is even when life is normal. It’s hard to keep going for years and years.

Best overall restaurant in Central Arkansas

1981: Restaurant Jacques and Suzanne

1982: Restaurant Jacques and Suzanne

1983: Cajun’s Wharf

1984: Restaurant Jacques and Suzanne

1985: Restaurant Jacques and Suzanne

1986: Restaurant Jacques and Suzanne

1987: Coy’s

1988: Ashley’s

1989: Coy’s

1990: Coy’s

1991: Graffiti’s

1992: Regas Grill

1993: Blue Mesa

1994: Brave New Restaurant

1995: Brave New Restaurant

1996: Brave New Restaurant

1997: Trio’s

1998: Brave New Restaurant

1999: Trio’s

2000: Brave New Restaurant

2001: Trio’s

2002: Brave New Restaurant

2003: Trio’s

2004: Brave New Restaurant

2005: Brave New Restaurant

2006: Brave New Restaurant

2007: Brave New Restaurant

2008: Brave New Restaurant

2009: Trio’s

2010: Brave New Restaurant

2011: Trio’s

2012: Brave New Restaurant

2013: Brave New Restaurant

2014: The Pantry

2015: Big Orange

2016: The Pantry

2017: The Pantry

2018: Petit & Keet

2019: Petit & Keet

2020: Table 28

Best new restaurant in Central Arkansas

1981: Black-Eyed Pea

1982: Shorty Small’s, The Blue Plate Special (tie)

1983: Shogun

1984: Packet House

1985: Ashley’s

1986: Graffiti’s

1987: Juanita’s

1988: A’lan’s

1989: Gabriel’s

1990: Lucky’s Paradise Seafood Grille, Purple Cow (tie)

1991: Regas Grill

1992: Tia’s Tex and Mex Grill

1993: Brave New Restaurant

1994: Romano’s Macaroni Grill

1995: Romano’s Macaroni Grill

1996: Spaule

1997: Loca Luna

1998: Capers

1999: St. Pascual’s Kitchen

2000: Vermillion Bistro

2001: Whole Hog Cafe

2002: Trio’s River Market

2003: Lily’s Dim Sum Then Some

2004: Boscos

2005: On the Border

2006: Ferneau

2007: SO Restaurant Bar

2008: Bill Valentine’s Ballpark Restaurant

2009: ZaZa

2010: Capi’s

2011: Dugan’s Pub

2012: Big Orange

2013: Local Lime

2014: South on Main

2015: Three Fold Noodles and Dumpling Co.

2016: Heights Taco and Tamale Co.

2017: Honey Pies

2018: Petit & Keet

2019: Dos Rocas

2020: Mockingbird Bar & Tacos