This year marked the fourth time in five years that Feltner's Whatta-Burger in Russellville made the list of finalists for the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame. When a group started the Hall of Fame almost five years ago, the decision was made to only induct three restaurants per class in order to keep the list exclusive.
But for those of us who spent time attending sports events in the old Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference, few places are more iconic than Whatta-Burger, an independent restaurant not to be confused with that Texas-based chain.
If you attended a game at Arkansas Tech University, a stop before or after the contest was a given. If hungry, you might stop both before and after. It also has been a regular stop since opening on Thanksgiving Day in 1967 for those traveling to and from University of Arkansas sports events at Fayetteville.
Bob Feltner first owned and operated a restaurant called Wonder-Burger, but the location he found just across the highway from Tech's campus proved to be perfect for Whatta-Burger. Current owners Missy and Randy Ellis carry on the tradition Feltner started.
Feltner's Whatta-Burger is one of three inductees this year along with Star of India in Little Rock and the all-you-can-eat chicken restaurant known as the Monte Ne Inn near Rogers.
"Food and food traditions are a big part of what we call authentic Arkansas," says Stacy Hurst, the secretary of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism. "I'm proud to say that once again we received nominations from all 75 counties. So this continues to be a truly statewide program. In fact, the task of selecting our winners keeps getting harder because the number of deserving nominees just keeps climbing.
"A record number of 2,014 nominations rolled into our website back in October. In our first year, we were thrilled to get 300 nominations. As is the case every year, the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame committee had its work cut out simply because there's so much good food and so many talented food people in Arkansas. Decisions about finalists and winners are never easy."
Following a year in which restaurants battled to stay alive, the Hall of Fame has never been more necessary. It's important to understand what the Hall of Fame is and is not. It was established in September 2016 to draw attention to the food culture of Arkansas, which is often overshadowed by food traditions in surrounding states.
This isn't an industry awards program such as the awards given by the Arkansas Hospitality Association. In addition to inducting three restaurants per year, for example, the Hall of Fame also honors a food-related festival each year, names a food of the year and does other things to promote the state's overall food culture.
The Hall of Fame, on whose selection committee I serve, utilizes the talents of historians and others from outside the food service industry. It's imperative that selections have geographic and racial diversity in order to tell the entire Arkansas food story.
The first time we did a food of the year was 2018. The choice was the tamale, long a tradition in the Arkansas Delta. In 2019, it was catfish. In 2020, it was rice, a selection that was hard to argue with since Arkansas grows half the nation's rice. This year's choice was another agricultural staple, corn.
"Whether it's served on the cob, fried, yellow or white, sweet and simmered in butter, as part of a casserole, ground into meal and baked into cornbread, or just plain popped, corn is grown commercially and in gardens across the state," Hurst says. "It feeds our people and our livestock. It always has, from territorial times to last night's dinner."
There's also a proprietor of the year category. This year's honoree is Matt McClure of The Hive at Bentonville, a restaurant housed inside the acclaimed 21c Hotel. For a state of only 3 million residents, Arkansas has a remarkable number of talented people in the food industry.
The other four finalists in that category this year--Capi Peck of Trio's in Little Rock, Anthony Valinoti of Deluca's in Hot Springs, Jamie McAfee of the Pine Bluff Country Club and Sami Lal of Star of India in Little Rock--likely will be inducted in future years.
Lal's Star of India became the first Indian restaurant inducted. Little Rock wasn't on the map for Lal when he arrived in this country. He went to Dallas but decided that the restaurant landscape there wasn't right for what he wanted to do. Lal began looking at cities across the region and finally drove to Little Rock. He liked what he saw.
After numerous trips to Arkansas' capital city, Lal opened his restaurant in 1993. He's known as a man who never forgets a name and has been lauded for having one of the state's best curbside operations during the pandemic.
Monte Ne, the third restaurant inducted this year, is near the ruins of the nationally known resort built by William "Coin" Harvey. The resort, whose remnants are now under the water of Beaver Lake, operated from 1901 until the 1930s. The restaurant has been serving its pan-fried chicken, rolls with apple butter, mashed potatoes and peach cobbler family style since 1972. Just make a reservation in advance, take the scenic drive to the community of Monte Ne, sit down and start eating.
To be eligible for Hall of Fame induction, a restaurant must be Arkansas owned and operated, not part of a chain and at least 25 years old. Being around that long is an accomplishment in a challenging industry that's constantly changing.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.