For those who believe the best things in life are free, you’re right. Those items that never make it onto your receipt at the end of a meal are the restaurant world’s way of saying “thanks a lot, you cheapskate, now why don’t you order the prime rib?”
Arkansas restaurants do a great job of sharing the free stuff, mostly at the beginning of the meal. For those great appetizers (and in one case, finishers), we offer this salute and handy guide for the hungry.
Hot water cornbread. Mather Lodge atop Petit Jean Mountain underwent a massive renovation a few years back. Now its airy Lodge-style dining hall offers a salad bar, country fried steak and other traditional Arkansas State Park offerings. Here, the freebie on the table is a basket of hot water cornbread – rounds of golden delight, served with butter. Ask for ketchup to make a rounded meal.
Salsa and crackers. A dying tradition still carried on by a few classic restaurants, such as Herman’s Ribhouse in Fayetteville. Perfected at the old JR’s Ribs (long may it rest in memory), this combination of a homemade salsa presented with crackers to sample it on was originally conceived to sell jars of salsa to take home. Eat that stuff up.
Cinnamon rolls. Calico County in Fort Smith has now served up nearly eight million cinnamon rolls in its 30+ years of existence, enough to feed and spark a diabetes epidemic in several small underdeveloped countries. Unfrosted but lightly dusted with sugar, these swirls of lightly spiced pastry come wrapped in a napkin, tucked in a basket no one at the table will touch out of fear of appearing greedy. But once the napkin is open, all bets are off, as is evidenced by the great number of fork-related injuries reported at Sparks Medical Center. Rather than beg for basket after basket of free cinnamon rolls, why don’t you buy a dozen to take home, you cheap bastard? Don’t tell me you didn’t see them right by the register. Day-olds cost less.
Peanuts. The distinction between a steakhouse and an American Southwest steakhouse lies in a bucket of these do-it-yourself in-the-hull legumes delivered to tables alongside menus at places such as Texas Roadhouse, Colton’s and similar Western-themed eateries. The urge to bring an authentic experience to the table, augmenting a 19th century “wild West” theme with the pod of a plant used to feed cows through the 1930s and is most closely associated with baseball, hits home for hungry diners who can’t wait for the salad and bread roll. I suppose the crunch of shells underfoot is meant to resemble hay that might have been laid down on unpaved streets for traction and accidentally brought into a dining establishment by foot traffic. Eat yours with the shell on like Grav does to freak out your dining companions.
Biscuits. The wait staff at Cracker Barrel is onto you. Have you noticed that the plate of biscuits isn’t just brought to the table when you arrive anymore? No, too many grubby individuals have ordered nothing but coffee and gobbled down plate after plate of the puffy white biscuits with tiny jars of jelly and packet after packet of Land-O-Lake. But if you ask, they have to bring them to the table, so get your fill before you order.
Tortilla chips and salsa. Yes, you dirty gringo, chow down on those filling chips while you take forever to decide whether you want the tortilla-wrapped goodness of a burrito, the tortilla-wrapped goodness of a soft taco plate, or the tortilla-wrapped and deep fried goodness of a chimichanga. Take all the time you want, filling up on those crispy tortillas we freshly made today, dipping up that salsa while deciding cheese dip is a splurge you just can’t handle. Our Mexican restaurants, our Ark-Mex and Tex-Mex establishments, none of them mind. Really.
Buttered crackers. Those old fellows in that diner you hear chewing the fat? They’re not chewing the fat. They’re nursing their coffee and practicing the generations-old tradition of buttering their crackers. After all, why in the world would anyone bring a basket of crackers to the table with a small bowl of butter packets if they weren’t meant to be enjoyed this way? Stick around long enough, and the coffee may end up free, too.
Cotton candy. I am not making this up. You can get cotton candy for FREE at an Arkansas restaurant. Mind you, you’ll have to be very crafty to get it without ordering anything else at The Hive at 21c Museum Hotel in Bentonville. Chef Matt McClure’s one smart cookie, only offering this sour apple-flavored delicacy AFTER the meal is over. But if you’re a silver-tongued devil, you might luck out.