Ozark Cafe a destination in Buffalo River country

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Jasper’s Ozark Cafe caters to both local folks and tourists.

JASPER, ARK. – In addition to famous deep-fried burgers, sweet milkshakes, and finger-licking fried chicken, the Ozark Cafe cooks up something unique that’s not on the menu. It’s something perhaps customers feel, but never eat, at what’s said to be Arkansas’ second-oldest restaurant in operation today.

It’s a figurative spice that flavors the cafe’s atmosphere: A balance of serving longtime local folks, and tourists who today make up a huge part of the cafe’s clientele.

In fact, the small Arkansas cafe has been recognized numerous times by national media outlets, including The New York Times newspaper, the “Man v. Food” television show, Food and Wine magazine and more. That publicity, as well as social media, has helped make the cafe a destination for folks not only outside the county, but outside the country.

A place that’s famous — and one where horse trailers still trundle by.

“We wanted to come out and see ‘America,'” says Andy Whiteside, a tourist from the United Kingdom who heard about the cafe on “Man v. Food” and recently visited with his son, Owen.

“I think we’ve ordered everything on the menu.”

But that fame hasn’t gone to the cafe figurative head. Locals themselves, the owners still strive to balance novelty (for example, the Excaliburger – more on that later), authenticity, and the aroma of heaping portions of down-home and downright-good food.

Russ and Jerri Todd

“We’re not skimpy with our portions, so you’re not going to go away hungry,” says Jerri Todd, who owns the restaurant along with her husband Russ, daughter Amanda, and son-in-law Fred.

Notes and memories are tucked beneath glass on the tables. Diners decide what they want to enjoy from menus printed on newsprint. Exposed walls hide secrets and stories told by diners since 1909.

That’s when the Ozark Cafe first came to be. While those early diners are not around today to tell, one must assume that the cafe was a natural place to gather in a time when people often stayed closer to home.

After Jasper was commissioned the county seat, perhaps folks from the courthouse — only a stone’s throw away — headed over for plates of beans and cornbread.

Back then, and far closer to today than it might seem, northwest Arkansas was an isolated place.

Views turn scenic just a few miles from the restaurant.

Part of scenic Buffalo River Valley — but long before its beauty was preserved as a park — the hill country was accessed by curvy, narrow, trail-like gravel roads, making drives part of the experience in getting somewhere.

Nowadays, those roads often still feel curvy, narrow and part of the experience. But thanks to modern improvements, they have made it much easier for people across the country and around the world to visit and enjoy Buffalo River country — and often, the Ozark Cafe.

The restaurant has evolved with age. It was once only one room, which is still integrated into the cafe. Today, however, it’s expanded to three and each one is filled with tables and chairs.

Many of those seats are filled on Saturday nights, when the restaurant is hopping with live music played from a stage. Another day they’re often filled is Thanksgiving, when the  owners and their family organize a free Thanksgiving dinner. Donations made that day benefit local charitable efforts.

There are bulletin boards filled with photos of family, whether tied by love or blood, who have been coming to the cafe for generations. Memories that keep them coming back, perhaps, as much as the tasty food.

A board shows photos of friends and family.

Owner Jerri is one of those people. Todd has lived around Jasper for years, and introduced her daughter (and future cafe owner) Amanda to the cafe just hours after she was born.

Back then, locals were able to give birth to babies in the town’s nursing home if they wanted to avoid going to the hospital in Harrison. That’s what Todd decided to do — and after leaving the nursing home, she took the baby and went to the cafe for lunch.

“I did not want to cook,” says Jerri. “So we just came down here after.”

The current owners purchased the cafe in 2015. With more than 30 employees, they’re one of the largest employers in the area, its owners say the staff is really close.

“There’s a lot of hugs here,” says Jerri. “It’s a family.

“We understood when someone’s grandpa died, because we knew him, too.”

While those bonds developed over generations, a slow introduction to the outside world began with the designation of the Buffalo National River in 1972.

That designation was something local folks discussed, but perhaps had no idea how much it would make their world everyone else’s, too. Such sentiments are recorded by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1975:

“As store proprietor, postmaster and canoe renter, (Bill) Houston is a businessman of some consequence in Pruitt and Newton County. He puts in long days and frequently can be found at 6:30 a.m. having breakfast at the Ozark Cafe in Jasper, across from the courthouse. There he visits with other businessmen and early risers.

“And they talk about the progress of the Buffalo National River, the 95,000-acre national park that is taking shape along 130 miles of the river. Some are for it and some are against it.

“The beauties of the Buffalo have been recorded in poetry, prose, photography and paint. Bill Houston, after years on the river, still stops in his tracks sometimes to stare at a craggy bluff, a scene he has seen a thousand times. He said, ‘Now would you look at that!’

‘Sure,’ he says, ‘some folks are against the national park. But I’m for it. I’m for saving the river. I want my son to be able to float by it and know it as I knew it as a boy.'”

Such wishes moved forward. After nearby roads became paved, the area — and the cafe — became a popular stop for bikers out exploring. In recent years, the cafe is often-visited by tourists coming to float, hike and climb in the Buffalo River valley’s scenic spots.

Sometimes, those folks aren’t acquainted with local ways — including the fact that restaurants aren’t always open. The Todds talk of visitors who occasionally come by after the restaurant closes, expecting that it’ll be open late into the evening. But even though they’re closed, the Todds try to ensure no one goes away hungry.

“We’ll try to feed someone,” says Jerri. “If they come by and we’re cleaning up, we’ll make them a sandwich.”

Some of the cafe’s fare includes burgers, milkshakes and fries.

While the restaurant offers traditional favorites — including a buffet lunch on Sunday — it also has developed some dishes all its own.

One is the Excaliburger, which is two grilled cheese sandwiches, a burger patty and special Ozark sauce, all held together with, as the menu puts it, “a small sword that resembles a knife.” Another widely-lauded favorite is the restaurant’s chocolate gravy, which the cafe’s website proudly says was named by Delish.com as an Arkansas must-try food.

But fame isn’t why the Todds do what they do.

“I knew most of the people here, or they knew me,” says Jerri. “We’ve been in this area a long, long time.”

“All I’ve ever done is work in a restaurant,” says Russ, who spent decades in food management. “Never thought I’d be an owner.

“I try hard to please people, and I love a good restaurant.”

Want to visit?

The Ozark Cafe is located at 107 E. Court St., Jasper. For more information, visit ozarkcafe.com, search Ozark Cafe on Facebook, or call 870-446-2976.

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“Notes from Buffalo River,” Robert Sanford, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 8, 1975

The Ozark Cafe reopens under new family ownership,” Newton County Times, Feb. 17, 2015

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