One Hot Springs club is making an impact by celebrating the “Spa City’s” history and serving up classic food and drinks with an eye on the local movement.
In recent years, Hot Springs is becoming known for more than just the thermal water gurgling through its mountain sides and the big loop where horses run. The subtle shift over the last several years toward a destination for history buffs and prohibition-era aficionados is noticeable in more than just the gangster museums and vintage baseball exhibitions. The food and drink scene is starting to manifest that shift too. One such place is The Ohio Club Restaurant and Bar.
The first thing one notices upon walking into The Ohio Club in downtown Hot Springs, is the huge antique mahogany bar back. The one-of-a-kind bar was built in the late 19th century and lived briefly in another bar around Cincinnati before taking a ride down the Mississippi, or so the story goes. With its wavy glass mirror and stately detail work, this behemoth of a bar is the centerpiece around which a menagerie of memorabilia hangs. This place has History with a capital-H, and really, really wants you to know it.
The Ohio Club hails itself as the oldest bar in Arkansas and claims it was a frequent stop for Gangsters like Al Capone and Bugs Moran, entertainers such as Mae West, and Baseball legends including Babe Ruth and others from the various major league teams who held spring training in Hot Springs.
In addition to walls covered in framed relics of illegal gambling and pictures of the gangsters and ballers who frequented Hot Springs, one can find live local music at the Ohio every night.
The houseband, The Ohio Club Players, keep the weekend crowds (mostly 30+) satisfied while a stable of local acts fill in on the other nights.
According to general manager, Kaylin Peterson, the biggest initial draw is the link to the past. Though they do have a solid “regular” crowd for lunch and Thursday “Jazz Nights” draw lots of locals, Peterson says 60-65 percent of the clientele are traveling through, “People come from all over for the history of the place,” she says.
Diving deeper into the history of the bar, Peterson explains that Hot Springs was something of a neutral zone for organized crime bosses and their possies. When they came to Hot Springs, they were essentially on vacation. In fact many Spa City residents will explain that Al Capone and Bugs Moran stayed just blocks away from each other in the Arlington and Majestic hotels and never attempted to harm each other while here. There are bullet holes in a front corner of the Ohio Club building and Peterson explains that these were likely from an FBI raid during prohibition and not a gangster on gangster shoot out.
People may come for the history but they are coming back for the food and drink too- The Ohio Club is quickly becoming known for it’s mouth-watering burgers, Reuben sandwiches and thirst-quenching drinks.
Kitchen manager, Michael Dampier, who has been with the club for about a year and was a regular for years before that, is quick to give credit for the success of the club to the entire staff and especially the owner, Mike Pettey who’s owned the club for 5 years.
“The main focus has been ‘we are the oldest bar in Arkansas’… It’s always been about the bar,” Dampier says. “Pettey was determined to serve good quality food but keep the emphasis on the bar.”
Then, about two years ago things started to change when they introduced house-seasoned and handmade burgers.
“You look at the menu, it’s burgers and sandwiches– that’s pretty typical bar food. But some of the comments have been ‘It’s truly unexpected bar food’- in how we present it and prepare it,” says Dampier.
Dampier’s own background is in BBQ and concessions. He was offered the job as kitchen manager after working as the doorman for a brief time. “Pettey knew I had food experience and liked to cook” so when the club found themselves needing a chef to run the kitchen, Dampier was a natural choice and he’s been influential in promoting the menu alongside the history ever since.
Dampier is also very involved in the growing “Local” movement which is slowly seeping into the consciousness of the Hot Springs food and drink universe. He notes especially the relationships he’s built with other chefs and restaurant owners such as Anthony Valinoti (DeLuca’s Pizzaria) and Scott McClard (McClard’s BBQ) and many others as well as his suppliers, many of whom are local or regional.
Some of the drafts are local/regional offering as well. “We have Saddlebock (NWA) on tap and we were the first bar in Hot Springs to get Lost Forty (LR) drafts.” Says Kaylin Peterson.
“Hot Springs is growing slowly, toward having a food culture. There’s a good community of cooks here in…. Everybody just kind of cross-promotes each other here. Local food people are really supporting each other.” adds Dampier.
When asked if they plan to expand the menu, he shakes his head. “We really don’t have room. We have a tiny kitchen.”
Peterson nods in agreement, “we have growing pains. We are at our cap of being able to promote this bar any more because we just don’t have room…If we could snap our fingers and make it a little bit bigger we would.” she says laughing.
Much like the rest of the city, The Ohio Club is betting its success on the resurgence of interest in Hot Springs’ colorful past- but in-house preparation with a good deal of locally sourced ingredients and a gastro-pub vibe have brought attention to the future of their food game too.
And if that is still not enough to pique your interest, a life-size Al Capone figure sits on a bench outside, waiting to be sat on and instagramed.
336 Central Ave
Hot Springs, Arkansas
Hours: Always Open