If you had been pressed to ask William Stell whether he though his concept, pre-fab eateries, would manage to survive the onslaught of time, would he have guessed that the last outpost of his franchise would have been in Russellville?
That is indeed the case for The Old South Restaurant, the longstanding Route 64 diner assembled on-site over six days to open on April 4, 1947. It was the second of dozens upon dozens of pre-fab restaurants Stell would open, and the one at 1330 E. Main in Russellville is the last one left after more than 75 years. Up through the end of the 20th century, it'd be open 24 hours a day, every day, every hour, save for the occasional power outage. In the past two decades, it's seen failure and success, changes in ownership, and a return to its original, excellent service.
The Summits, the current owners, have done an excellent job of revitalizing this institution without altering the charm of the place. The wood paneling and Formica bar are still in place, and the menu -- with a few additions -- is still mostly the same as when this writer considered the place her study hall and nursed coffee and fried honey buns through the wee hours of the night before finals, back in the '90s. Breakfasts are still memory-perfect, the fried chicken is still crispy and juicy, and fried pickles are still hand-cut planks, as creator Bernell Austin -- who lived down the road in Atkins -- would have intended.
What has been added, though, are prime rib nights. The Old South has always had fantastic diner-style steaks, Kansas City strips and T-bones worthy of any roadside grill. But the addition of aged prime rib to a menu full of classics has been a welcome one. Friday and Saturday nights, these slabs of cooked-to-order beef come to the table with all the accoutrements, though why steak knives are even included may never rightly be known. Tender, almost butter-soft, served au jus with horseradish, this is how prime rib should be.
Like most dinners, prime rib comes with two sides -- on this particular evening, zucchini was a welcome addition to the standard potato variations, fried okra, green beans, pinto beans, mac and cheese and the like. It does not, however, come with a salad. But you can make that choice and get it with one of a number of housemade dressings, including the famous blue cheese and mayo Old South Salad Dressing.
For those who decide to side-step the extravagant -- but not extravagantly priced -- prime rib, the menu offers a wide array of dishes, from country fried steak to farm-raised fried catfish, pork chops, chicken livers, hot open-faced roast beef sandwiches, and a mighty club with its 1950s showcase aura of perfectly quartered ham, turkey, bacon and cheese on white bread. Breakfast is also available any time, and over the past couple of decades another Arkansas-attributed staple, chocolate gravy, has been added.
And of course, there's pie. While the restaurant has offered coconut cream pie since its earliest days, it has wholeheartedly adopted the regional specialty, possum pie, with its layers of cream cheese and chocolate custard below a whipped cream top. Other pie variations vary daily, and you cannot go wrong with any of them.