There are very few easily accessible vacation destinations quite like Eureka Springs, Arkansas. The charming Victorian styling provides a comfortable setting for the town’s numerous bed-and-breakfasts, spas and tourist-centered shopping. While Eureka Springs is essentially built into the side of the mountain, walking from one end of downtown to the other is more invigorating than exhausting (especially given the milder climate). The people are friendly and hospitable, and relaxation is only a massage session or back porch swing away. Eureka Springs has always been my top in-state recommendation when it comes to a weekend getaway.
Still, I’d be lying if I told you the town is a top culinary destination. While there are some good eats in Eureka Springs, the majority of the town’s dining options are geared toward the tourism industry, resulting in wide-ranging menus that do a lot of different dishes and none of them particularly well. Those wanting to eat their way through the city should do some research to find the restaurants offering the best cuisine. And on a recent weekend trip to Eureka Springs, I found a few options worth recommending.
We arrived in Eureka Springs on a Friday evening and decided to take in dinner at Rogue’s Manor on Spring Street. The sprawling Victorian mansion has obviously worn several hats over the decades, resulting in at least one dining room having a professional vent hood that belongs in a kitchen. Another quirk: Rogue’s Manor allows smoking, and I did a double take when asked the “smoking or non” question I hadn’t answered in years. Thankfully, the smoking section is far removed from the rest of the dining room.
We began our meal with the Potted Montrachet ($13), a goat cheese and olive spread with buttery toast points that made for a good, if expensive, starter. Prices didn’t get much lower with our entrees. My Osso Bucco-style Pork Shank ($34) was cooked very nicely with a sweet, earthy, Asian plum sauce. My wife’s Seafood Casserole ($29) was just ok; I thought herb and sherry flavor were lacking in this dated dish. Both were served with a horseradish-whipped potato and broccoli steamed in butter (you read that right). In fact, there was quite a bit of butter in everything, including the crust of a cheesecake that would have been excellent if the kitchen put the chocolate sauce on the side. Yeah, I might be alone in the “chocolate on every dessert” pet peeve, but this cheesecake was really better without it. Still, our service was excellent, and we left satisfied.
There are a number of options for lodging in Eureka Springs, but my wife and I love the 1881 Crescent Cottage Inn bed-and-breakfast. Breakfast on both mornings was very good; most notable was a scrambled egg that incorporated a small bit of green chile sauce and cream cheese to give the eggs some excellent depth. My personal favorite is Ray and Elise’s honey butter-poached pear, which is every bit as decadent as it sounds. The coffee is strong and free-flowing, and the table conversation has always been entertaining. It bears mentioning that our accommodations were wonderful, with a Jacuzzi tub in the room and a quiet back porch overlooking the Ozarks. Check them out if you’re looking for a quality stay that won’t break the budget.
Despite the hearty breakfast Saturday, we were determined to try as much food as we could during our stay. After a few hours shopping, we stopped for lunch at Local Flavor Café, a small restaurant toward the front (south) of the downtown area. Of all the places we tried, Local Flavor is probably the most inclined toward fresh, seasonal ingredients, and the menu really benefits. Our Cold Smoked Salmon ($11) appetizer was excellent, with almost too much fish on the plate. My wife’s Shrimp Diablo ($12) was the highlight, with a spiciness that was almost bright instead of hot and some perfectly cleaned and cooked shrimp. I ordered the Jamaican Jerk Prime Rib ($12), and while the seasoning was very nice, the steak’s thin size meant achieving the promised medium color was too difficult. Still, we were very happy with our lunch despite the steak temperature hiccup.
If there’s only one must-go destination for my wife and me, it’s Ermilio’s Italian Restaurant. A word to the wise: get here early. We arrived at 5 p.m. and still waited an hour for our table. Fortunately, Ermilio’s has perhaps the greatest waiting area at any restaurant I’ve seen. In addition to the massive porch area, a second floor room holds a bar and a plethora of board games. I’m talking Life, Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit, even Pictionary. My wife and I played a few games of Battleship over cocktails and barely noticed the wait time. It’s such a wonderful, unpretentious idea that it’s a wonder more places haven’t stolen it.
Dinner brought the best food of our trip, particularly the Calamari ($9.95) appetizer. I wasn’t expecting the squid to be cooked like mussels, but the white wine, lemon and herbs worked wonders with the dish. The calamari itself was firm but not chewy, and I found myself wishing I’d made my order a double. The Stuffed Mushrooms appetizer ($6.75) was good, featuring four large mushrooms caps with a simple stuffing and a load of melted mozzarella cheese. And you can’t miss the bread service, which features roasted garlic cloves, butter and Parmesan cheese. It’s a unique do-it-yourself topping that is delicious and unforgettable.
Our entrées included the Chicken Marsala ($16.95), which was good but predictable. My Pork Chop ($18) was much more satisfying. Cooked to a perfect medium, the balanced seasoning and the mushroom demi glace made this one of the best-executed plates of our trip. For dessert, we tried the cannoli. While it was fine, it lacked the trademark punch of cinnamon and nutmeg that define the best cannolis. Still, Ermilio’s undoubtedly served the best meal of our trip, one that will guarantee a repeat visit on our next trip.
Sadly, we ended the weekend on a bit of a dud. Mud Street Café is one of the more popular food destinations in Eureka Springs, but we found it lackluster. The best part of the meal turned out to be a freshly baked blueberry muffin ($3) that featured a light sweetness and a pleasantly crisp top. I ordered a Mushroom Omelet ($10) off the brunch menu that could have used three or four times the mushrooms scantly provided. My wife’s Greek Omelet ($10) tasted surprisingly boring for a dish boasting artichoke hearts, olives and feta cheese. It didn’t help matters any that the coffee was served so hot it was undrinkable for a solid 10 minutes. Some attention to detail would have benefited every stage of our meal there, and we left wondering why so many people eat at Mud Street Café again and again.
My advice: don’t come to Eureka Springs for a “foodie” vacation. This really isn’t a culinary destination. However, it is a wonderful town to relieve your stress and forget about your problems for a short while. And while it’s no Charleston or Nashville or Austin in terms of restaurants, there is some good eating to be had here for those who seek it out. In the end, Eureka Springs is a town that seems to genuinely care about the people who stay there, and, in some cases, that extends to the food its restaurants serve. Do your homework before you go, but don’t miss the chance for a relaxing getaway that’s only a short drive away from Central Arkansas.