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OPINION | REX NELSON: Eating with Cuz

by Rex Nelson | March 31, 2021 at 3:18 a.m.

Unlike our boastful Texas neighbors, Arkansans quietly prepare good food, enjoy eating it and then move on with our lives. Because we don't brag, Arkansas food has never received the national recognition it deserves.

Let's make this much clear: Some of the best cooking anywhere can be found in Arkansas, though national television shows and magazine articles tend to focus on Texas or Memphis barbecue, New Orleans Creole cooking or the seafood along the Gulf Coast.

In addition to the modesty of the natives, a reason for that lack of recognition is that people from outside our state have a hard time making sense of Arkansas.

We're a fringe state, you see, not solely part of any one region. We're mostly Southern but also a bit Midwestern and a tad Southwestern. One thing Arkansans have in common, though, is that, while never boastful, we're proud. So it is that we've done a better job celebrating our culinary treasures in recent years, especially since the September 2016 creation of the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame.

Following the first Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2017, those of us associated with the organization decided to add a category called Gone But Not Forgotten to celebrate memorable restaurants that are no longer around. Finalists in that category this year were Browning's Mexican Grill of Little Rock, the Dairy Hollow House at Eureka Springs, Habib's of Helena and Roy Fisher's Steak House at North Little Rock. Fisher's got the nod.

Roy and Maxine Ruth Fisher began Fisher's Cafe in 1947. In 1958, the name was changed to Roy Fisher's Steak House when a larger location was built at 1919 E. Broadway. That was the main road to Memphis in those days, and it was crowded day and night. Roy and Maxine worked long hours alongside each other until Roy's death in 1985. Roy was known as "Cuz," and the restaurant's motto was "Eat with Cuz."

Maxine continued working with her son Roy Dudley and daughter-in-law Chee Chee until retiring in 2005. She died in 2017.

Fisher's was known for its bountiful breakfasts and hearty plate lunches. The men in suits and ties who worked in downtown Little Rock towers would converge on the restaurant alongside blue-collar workers.

I was part of a breakfast group that gathered on a regular basis. Waitress Mary Daniell, who died in February 2011 at age 71, would trade good-natured insults with a group that included Skip Rutherford of the Clinton School of Public Service, state Sen. Bill Gwatney, Little Rock business leader Gene Fortson and North Little Rock business owner Walter "Bubba" Lloyd Jr.

We would tease Gwatney about his family's wealth, especially when he would order a meal known as "the working man's breakfast."

"That's as close as you'll ever come to being a working man," Daniell would tell the automobile dealer.

Gwatney was chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party in the summer of 2008 when he was murdered at state party headquarters by a lone gunman, who was killed later that day during a shootout with police. No reason for the murder was ever determined. I think of Gwatney each time I drive by the former Fisher's location.

Rutherford described our group this way: "We had no schedule. It was just when somebody sent a notice out. It was always a long breakfast, talking about politics, sports, current issues. Those conversations were great because Gwatney would unload on any issue. Politics was a common ground. When I was Democratic state chairman, I used to say in speeches that my best achievement was making sure Gwatney ran as a Democrat."

Mary Daniell was, in a sense, part of the cast.

A reader once posted on my blog: "Mary wasn't beyond bopping you on the head with a menu if you got out of line. I still have bumps on my head. A Fisher's tradition in the group I normally ate with was to ask the veteran waitress assigned to our table what kinds of pies were available. After the waitress listed more than a dozen kinds of pie, someone in our group would always say: 'Could you please repeat that?'

"What a great place. What great fried chicken. What great hamburger steak. What great homemade French salad dressing."

In the spring of 2010, after the restaurant had closed for good, the lights were on at night again for one special moment. Fisher's was a filming location for the "The Last Ride," which portrayed the final days of Hank Williams Sr. The film was set in late 1952, leading up to Williams' death on Jan. 1, 1953.

Jeff LeMaster wrote in this newspaper at the time: "It's not hard to see why Fisher's was chosen to represent that time period. The restaurant opened its first location in 1947 on the south side of Broadway. It moved across the street in 1958 to the building that still stands today. Sitting in a booth at the now-closed diner is like stepping back in time. ...

"Director Harry Thomason grew up in southwest Arkansas around the time Fisher's opened, and he remembers well traveling to Little Rock with his parents and making a point to stop in at Fisher's."

Thomason said: "Folks loved Fisher's Steak House. When we were looking for a diner, I said, 'Guys, is Fisher's still around?' It looks just like I think I remember it."

Elvis Presley would stop at Fisher's on his way from Memphis to Shreveport to perform on "Louisiana Hayride." The family sold the restaurant in 2005, and it closed for good in 2008.

Fisher's had the best fried chicken livers I've ever eaten. If you didn't get there by 11 a.m. for lunch, you were going to wait for a seat. It was usually full from 11 a.m. until almost 2 p.m.


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.

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