State

Dairy Bars: Neat eats, cool treats

By Kat Robinson
Arkansas Parks & Tourism

The dairy bar – a classic roadside eatery usually featuring burgers, hot dogs, fries and ice cream. It’s an American classic, and in Arkansas, it’s a culinary destination.

More than 90 different mom-and-pop dairy bars can be found across The Natural State – most of them with histories spanning decades. 

In a pandemic time, these window-service establishments not only managed to survive, they thrived in a time when social distancing became the recommended way to dine out.

Kat Robinson, author and Arkansas food historian, found her inspiration for her 10th book, “Arkansas Dairy Bars: Neat Eats and Cool Treats”, with a visit to a local favorite in January of 2021.

“I had a craving for a good old-fashioned milkshake, and decided to check out if Mel’s Dairy Bar in Malvern was still open. Even though the place doesn’t have a sign you can see from the street, it was surrounded by cars. As I enjoyed my milkshake, I realized that the dairy bar was the perfect pandemic-proof dining option out there. I went home and started researching, and discovered that out of the 95 locally owned and operated dairy bars around Arkansas open in February 2020, 94 of them were still open a year later.”

Robinson set out on a quest to visit each and every one, and to document the food. The standard: each dairy bar considered had to be locally owned (no chains), be a permanent establishment, offer ice cream and foods other than ice cream, and offer ordering and pick-up through a window. As she crossed the state visiting each restaurant, she photographed the food in its natural element – in this case, on the dashboard of her vehicle.

“I wanted to show what diners should expect,” Robinson shares. “There’s no styling, just the dishes from each place on a tray under my windshield and natural light.”

Robinson was over halfway done documenting these dishes when she received the green light from Arkansas PBS to create a film based on the book. Arkansas Dairy Bars: Neat Eats and Cool Treats debuted on the network in August.

While the documentary specifically dives into the stories of 13 dairy bars around Arkansas, the book chronicles all of them – including that 95th restaurant.

“I was sad that the legendary Timbo Dairy Bar didn’t survive the pandemic,” Robinson relates, “but was absolutely thrilled to find that relatives of the owners had restarted it as Brad N Dad’s Drive In, and still served a great burger and lots of ice cream delights.”

“Arkansas Dairy Bars: Neat Eats and Cool Treats” is the ultimate compendium of information on these restaurants. Not only does it include information about the foods you’ll find at each place, but the stories of the locations, the families that keep the traditions going, historic photographs and little details are all included in the 242 pages within.

They range in age from Betty’s Old Fashion, the El Dorado two-window operation that originally opened in 1934, to the Dardanelle Ice Cream Shop and Deli, which started serving customers in 2019. From Blytheville’s revered Kream Kastle to Herb’s Creamland in Ashdown, Willy’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers in Dermott to the American Drive In in Lincoln, every dairy bar is covered.

The cuisine varies widely at each location. While burgers and ice cream are the norm, you’ll also find great places to eat catfish, chicken gizzards, Polish sausages, chicken fried steak, hot dogs, and even prime rib – all through window pickup, and all ready to take home or eat in your car.

The handy edge index along the bottom is separated into eight regions – River Valley, Western and Eastern Ozarks, Upper and Lower Delta, Lower Arkansas, the Ouachitas and Central Arkansas. Each section includes a map of all the dairy bars in the region, which makes planning a road trip easy and convenient.

The book contains 99 locations – which is a wee bit more than the list Robinson originally conjured.

“While I was doing my initial run in February and March, a few of our dairy bars weren’t open. Some close down over the colder months – like the Susie Q Malt Shop in Rogers, the Dairy Dream in Mountainburg and others. I wanted to make sure this was an all-season guide to finding these locations. And, just because it’s so intricately tied to the same sort of scene, I included the Kenda Drive In in Marshall – our only year-round movie drive-in left in Arkansas.”

“Arkansas Dairy Bars: Neat Eats and Cool Treats” contains more than 350 photos and illustrations, along with phone numbers for placing your order. It’s the ultimate travel guide for your roadtrip, a great trip down memory lane, and a book you’ll read twice – once when you receive it, and once when you pull it out of your glove compartment to find a dairy bar near you as you travel the state of Arkansas.

“Arkansas Dairy Bars: Neat Eats and Cool Treats” is available in hardcover and paperback. Books are available through Little Rock’s beloved WordsWorth BooksHistoric Arkansas MuseumGreen Corner Store and at the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies at the Roberts Library in Little Rock’s River Market. Copies are also available at Terra StudiosFeltner’s Whatta-Burger and All Things Arkansas. Signed books can be ordered directly through Tonti Press. The book can also be ordered through national retailers such as AmazonBarnes and NobleBookshop, and DiscoverBooks. The hardcover retails for $39.99, while the paperback will sell for $29.99. The book is 242 pages, full color throughout. “Arkansas Dairy Bars: Neat Eats and Cool Treats” is Robinson’s 10th book. Her 11th book, “Arkansas Cookery: Retro Recipes from The Natural State”, will be released in paperback on Dec. 7, 2021.

For more information or to arrange an interview with the author, or to receive a review copy or digital galley, please send your request to inquiries@tontipress.com.

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