National Parks in the U.S. are famous havens for outdoor adventure and recreation, but they’re not commonly regarded as foodie destinations. Hot Springs National Park, in Arkansas, is a unique exception.
Nestled in the Ouachita Mountains, the park is a far cry from what many envision when they think of the parks. You won’t find canyons, soaring peaks, raging rivers or immense wildlife here; rather, you’ll discover a small, bustling city by the same name, lined with ornate bathhouses, hotels and businesses, setting the tone for a national park like no other. This is a place where urban style goes hand-in-hand with the natural phenomena flowing beneath the Earth’s surface (and bubbling up in fountains and vintage bathtubs). It’s particularly evident in the surplus of great dining destinations, many of which utilize timeworn recipes, local ingredients and traditions, and the park’s famed thermal waters. For proof, here are 8 reasons why Hot Springs is the ultimate National Park for foodies.
You haven’t tasted beer like this before. Not only is Superior Bathhouse the only brewery located within the confines of a national park, but it’s the first in the world to make beer with thermal water. So thanks to the mineral-rich health benefits of said hot springs water, this is beer you can feel good about drinking (right?). “Hot springs on tap” is the tagline, featured in rotating brews like cranberry saisons, dry IPAs and chocolate oatmeal stouts. In case the beer wasn’t enough of a draw, the space itself is worth the visit, as it’s housed in a former bathhouse (hence the name) right on Bathhouse Row. There’s also an impressive food menu to match, with items like bratwursts, chili and Reuben sandwiches.
A visit to the storied Ohio Club, the oldest bar in Arkansas, feels like a trip back in time—to 1905 to be precise. Steeped in history and vintage paraphernalia, the bar initially doubled as a casino, drawing famous patrons like Al Capone, Babe Ruth and Al Jolson. The gambling has since dwindled, but live music and boozy potables remain a draw. Folks flock to the Ohio Club for potent whiskey cocktails and beer, adjoined by a hearty food menu of burgers, sandwiches, onion rings and other comforts.
History is all around in Hot Springs. From the luxe bathhouses to the timeworn bars, to the thermal water itself, this is a city and a park that connects the past with the present. Another prime example is VAULT, an upscale restaurant housed in a former bank within the original 1890’s Bank Building downtown. The literal bank vault can even be reserved for private dining. As one would expect from a bygone bank, the dining room is fittingly extravagant and soaring, with a decadent menu of American fare to compliment.
Although Steinhaus Keller is located just down a flight of stairs and a stone’s throw from Hot Springs Mountain, it feels worlds away from Arkansas. Or at least, an ocean away. Ensconced in brick and exposed wood ceilings, this cozy hideaway captures the upbeat ethos of an authentic German biergarten. Chef/owner David McGuire pays homage to Bavaria with a menu brimming with giant pretzels, cabbage rolls, sauerkraut, schnitzel, spaetzle and plenty of beer. There’s also a peaceful outdoor dining area, live music and lederhosen-clad servers to really bring the theme home.
Another vintage local standby, The Pancake Shop has been perfecting flapjacks since 1940. The comfy eatery feels like having breakfast in someone’s home, which makes sense considering its been a family-run institution for several decades. The enduring appeal is clear to see, from the seasoned, friendly waitstaff to the soulful menu, where everything is made from scratch. This includes an array of pancake varieties, ham steaks, omelets, sausage and any kind of juice imaginable. On weekends, when crowds clamor for tables, diners can wait next door at The Savory Pantry, where coffee, music and food samples are available.
Cinnamon rolls, in all their ooey gooey glory, take a starring role at this adorable cafe. The classic go-to flavor, laden with butter, cinnamon, sugar and frosting, is destination-worthy in and of itself, but don’t overlook the offbeat flavors the shop toys with as well. These include rotating specials like peanut butter-frosted cinnamon rolls and others iced with maple, orange and lemon zest. They also do savory rolls, and sprinkle bacon atop cream cheese for a sweet-and-savory double whammy. For those who want to skip the pastry and head straight for the sugar, Will’s even does “icing shots” of pure sugary goodness.
Just because Hot Springs is filled with longstanding restaurants and old-school haunts doesn’t mean there isn’t room for newcomers. Case in point: The Avenue Restaurant is a sleek stunner inside the hottest hotel in Hot Springs. Chef Casey Copeland mans a menu of locally sourced cuisine, with a penchant for innovation and crafty contrast in color, texture and flavor. Right now, that means carbonara lasagna laced with pancetta and egg yolk cream, scallops over carrot-pecan risotto, bourbon-splashed pimento cheese with pea tendril chimichurri, bone-in pork chops with raspberry guajillo and rabbit pot pie. The restaurant also boasts a killer cocktail list and wine program, not to mention its enviable Sunday brunch.
An all-American city like Hot Springs deserves an all-American steakhouse, and The Porterhouse fills that niche handily. This longstanding staple is the passion project of owners Penny and Joseph Gargano, who brings decades of hospitality and culinary experience to the table. Within these hallowed walls, patrons can indulge in filets, rib-eyes, T-bones and of course, porterhouse steaks, along with a full range of seafood dishes, chicken and burgers. Don’t sleep on the sides, either, especially with options like cheesy cauliflower au gratin and lobster mashed potatoes.