Dairy bars: when I mention this type of restaurant to people who don’t live in Arkansas, I often get a blank stare. In other places, these joints are called milk bars. And – in other places – they aren’t quite as common as they are here in The Natural State.
But they’re a marvelous way to feed your nostalgia, even in the risky COVID-19 age.
Back in January, I was looking for my next project. I had spent time during the pandemic writing cookbooks instead of the travel guides for which I am well known. But, like many, I was itching to get out and about again and resume my normal life – normal, for me, being visiting, researching, and sharing the stories of our state’s fine dining establishments.
My partner and I were out one Saturday afternoon delivering books. I wanted ice cream, and so did he, so we stopped in at a place I knew – a restaurant that didn’t even have a street sign. That place was Mel’s Dairy Bar in Malvern. It’s south of downtown on U.S. Highway 67, a little yellow building from whence ice cream and massive burgers come.
It was while I was enjoying a caramel shake that the idea popped into my head: dairy bars – by their own natural construction – are likely the best prepared restaurants for pandemic times. Orders are through a window, as are pick-ups. Social distancing can be maintained safely. And there’s a nostalgic kick to be considered.
I awoke the next morning with the idea to create a book on the subject and got busy researching the state’s dairy bars. I was quite surprised to find that the model I had thought about was indeed working well: of the state’s 95 dairy bars around in 2019, some 94 of them were still in operation.
So, I traveled safely, wearing my personal protection, and visited each of these locations. I sampled all sorts of fare – from remarkable butterscotch sundaes at Lion’s Den Drive In in Clarendon and the steak fingers at the Lighthouse Drive-In in Wickes to dipped cones at Portia’s Dairy King and righteous burgers at Sheridan’s Yellow Jacket Drive-In – and started building a book.
When Arkansas PBS decided it was time to create another Arkansas food program, “Arkansas Dairy Bars” seemed like the perfect entry. Over the course of three weeks in late March and early April, cinematographer Jeff Dailey and I traveled to a host of different locations across this marvelous state, recording the stories of the dairy bars selected and the people who work in them.
Now, we’re bringing the stories to you. On Aug. 19, you’ll be able to meet all the folks from these locations, see what we found to eat and learn how these establishments have been able to survive all these years. I’m excited to share with you these stories. Stay tuned!
Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021
Donate now at myarpbs.org/donatedairybars to support public media across Arkansas, and you can pre-order a DVD copy, companion book, T-shirt or other fun thank-you gift!
About the Author: Kat Robinson is Arkansas’s food historian and most enthusiastic road warrior. The Little Rock-based travel writer is the host of the Emmy-nominated Arkansas PBS documentary "Make Room For Pie; A Delicious Slice of The Natural State" and a committee member for the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame. The author of ”101 Things To Eat in Arkansas Before You Die,” “102 More Things to Eat in Arkansas Before You Die” and ”Arkansas Food: The A to Z of Eating in The Natural State,” Kat has also compiled the comprehensive travel guide for pie lovers, ”Another Slice of Arkansas Pie: A Guide to the Best Restaurants, Bakeries, Truck Stops and Food Trucks for Delectable Bites in The Natural State” (2018). Her other books are “Arkansas Pie: A Delicious Slice of the Natural State” (2012), “Classic Eateries of the Ozarks and Arkansas River Valley” (2013) and “Classic Eateries of the Arkansas Delta” (2014). She is the Arkansas fellow and curator to the National Food and Beverage Foundation, a guest editor for the University of Arkansas publication Arkansauce: The Journal of Arkansas Foodways and the 2011 Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism Henry Award winner for Media Support. Her work has appeared in regional and national publications including Food Network, Forbes Travel Guide, Serious Eats and AAA Magazines, among others. Her expertise in food research and Arkansas restaurants has been cited by Saveur, Eater, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, the Southern Foodways Alliance's Gravy podcast. While she writes on food and travel subjects throughout the United States, Robinson is best known for her ever-expanding knowledge of Arkansas food history and restaurant culture, all of which she explores on her 1200+ article website, TieDyeTravels.com. Kat's journeys across Arkansas have earned her the title "road warrior," "traveling pie lady," and probably some minor epithets. Few have spent as much time exploring The Natural State, or researching its cuisine. "The Girl in the Hat" has been sighted in every one of Arkansas's 75 counties, oftentimes sliding behind a menu or peeking into a kitchen. Additionally, Kat's other forays includes running the budding new publishing house Tonti Press, which features the works of Arkansas authors. Her new podcast, Kat Robinson's Arkansas, is in production awaiting the reopening of culinary tourism and road trips in response to the COVID-19 pandemic situation. She speaks before audiences of all sizes on the subjects of Arkansas, food, travel and plenty of other subjects.