Hot Springs is One National Park Where You Should Pack an Appetite
National parks are popular destinations for hiking, paddling, wildlife-spotting, and museums, but foodie meccas they are not—usually. Unless of course you visit Hot Springs National Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas, a tiny park unlike anything else in the National Park Service, and one that’s sure to change your idea of dining and drinking at national parks.
Tucked away in the rolling green Ouachita Mountains, Hot Springs is unique in pretty much every way. You won’t find canyons or bison or soaring trees; instead, you’ll find a charming and vintage all-Americana city steeped in lore and lined with ornate bathhouses that look like they’re entirely preserved in time from another era. It’s a park that toes the line between urban and rural, a juxtaposition best exemplified by the park’s namesake spring waters that flow off the mountains and into lavish bathtubs at street level. But did you know you can also drink those spring waters in the form of beer? And pair it with a Reuben sandwich? This is a park that knows how to maximize its resources, and this is certainly true of its water, its spirits, and its local ingredients. Here are seven of the best restaurants and bars at Hot Springs, the ultimate national park for foodies.
Photo courtesy of The Ohio Club/Facebook
The Ohio Club
The oldest bar in Arkansas, The Ohio Club is a real blast from the past—to 1905, to be precise. Rich in history and timeworn decor, the bar originally served as a casino, enticing famed (and occasionally infamous) visitors like Al Capone, Babe Ruth, and Al Jolson. The casino portion is no more, but live music and strong, whiskey-centric cocktails remain an enduring attraction. There’s also a solid food menu of American eats, like burgers, sandwiches, onion rings, and other booze-sopping comforts.
Photo courtesy of Steinhaus Keller/Facebook
If you were blindfolded and brought down the stairs into Steinhaus Keller, you might mistakenly think you were somehow transported to a rustic, brick-lined restaurant in Munich. But instead, this is chef David McGuire’s convivial Arkansas spin on the German biergarten tradition, dished out by lederhosen-clad servers in a lively and cozy space. On the menu: all the best German essentials, like spaetzle, schnitzel, sauerkraut, cabbage rolls, pretzels the size of your head, and of course, all the beer you could possibly crave.
Photo courtesy of The Pancake Shop/Facebook
The Pancake Shop
Pancakes are apparently a pretty big deal in Hot Springs, as the town has a couple long-running breakfast haunts specializing in the dish. One such standby is the adorable Pancake Shop, which has been flapping jacks since 1940. The homey eatery feels like dining in grandma’s sunny breakfast nook, which makes sense considering the restaurant has been a family-run operation for generations. The lasting popularity is clear, what with the familial service and scratch-made comfort plates like fluffy, piled-high pancakes, omelets, and burly ham steaks.
Superior Bathhouse/Photo by Matt Kirouac
One of the most unique offerings in Hot Springs, or anywhere in the country for that matter, is Superior Bathhouse, the only brewery located within a national park, and the first in the world brewing beer with thermal spring water. The result is a beer list of mineral-rich IPAs, oatmeal stouts, porters, and seasonally inspired saisons, which not only taste great, but have added health benefits, so you can pretend they’re good for you. There are plenty of rotating options on tap at all times, coupled with a robust food menu of beer-friendly eats like Reuben sandwiches, bratwursts, and chili. And the coolest part of all is it’s all housed in one of the historic bathhouses right on Bathhouse Row.
Photo courtesy of Will’s Cinnamon Shop/Facebook
Will’s Cinnamon Shop
As anyone who has wandered through a mall can attest, the aromatic allure of cinnamon rolls is inescapable. Damn you, Cinnabon. But here in Hot Springs, there’s an independent shop putting their wholesome, distinct stamp on the ooey-gooey indulgence. The classic cinnamon roll at Will’s sets the bar for how these pastries should be made, soft and doughy, and laden with all the cinnamon, sugar, butter, and frosting. What really sets this cafe apart, though, are the offbeat originals, like savory rolls studded with bacon with cream cheese. Or peanut butter cinnamon rolls. If you’re just here for the frosting, the shop even sells straight-up “icing shots” for a pure jolt of treacly goodness.
Photo courtesy of Vault at 723/Facebook
Vault at 723
From the sprawling bathhouses and famed spring waters to the everlasting bars and hotels, history is omnipresent in Hot Springs. No place connects the past with the present like this park, and its local businesses like Vault at 723, a high-end restaurant located in a former bank from the late-1800s. The actual bank vault is still in use as a private dining space, in fact. No matter where you sit, though, you’re in for an elegant treat, as the motif here is decidedly lavish and extravagant, with a menu of modern American cuisine to round it all out and do its confines justice.
The Avenue Restaurant at the Waters Hotel
Another excellent example of Hot Springs’ balancing act of the old and the new, The Avenue Restaurant is a stunning rendition of the latter. Located inside the chic Waters Hotel, the restaurant is all about eclectic, vibrant cuisine and zesty flavors, presented with plenty of artistic flair. That means blue cornmeal fried oysters with poblano cream and ginger-red pepper escabeche, chorizo tots with aged cheddar and garlic-jalapeño crema, grilled pork chops with corn and caramelized onion stuffing, and shrimp and clam stew with tomato-shrimp broth and grilled herb bread. The restaurant also offers a great cocktail list, and an epic Sunday brunch.
Header photo: Courtesy of The Avenue/Facebook
Matt Kirouac has been writing about food and travel since 2008, for outlets like Travel + Leisure, TripSavvy, DiningOut magazines, Plate Magazine, KOA, Culture Trip, Zagat, and Food Fanatics magazine. He fell in love with national parks while on a trip to South Dakota, where Badlands National Park stole his heart…and has been holding it ransom ever since.