You'll find one of Benton’s longstanding dairy bars along Edison Avenue at the corner of Cox Street, where the original Leon's Whopper Burger was erected in 1961.
Generations enjoyed the quirky hop stop for its burgers, shakes and jukebox. Its combination of walk-up service, soda counter and intimate booths made it a spectacular teenage hangout.
Leon's Whopper Burger was owned and operated by Leon and Louise Patterson. It was one of two Whopper Burger locations in Benton, Arkansas – the other being on old Military Road. Benton had an affinity for dairy bars from the 60s through the 90s with Ruff's Tastee Freeze, a Dairy Queen, the Congo Road station that became the Salem Dairy Bar, Hickey's Dairy Cone on the Little Rock Highway and the Kream Kastle on the way out towards Hot Springs. The town's population seemed particularly adoring of the establishments.
In the 1980s, the Pattersons' daughter Peggy Wilson and her husband, Garry, took on the restaurant, and ran it for a couple of decades. The restaurant dropped the Whopper Burger name after Burger King contacted Garry and his kin and pointed out that the name "Whopper" was now a trademarked item. At that point, the name was simplified to Garry's Drive In.
From around 2009 to 2014, Bob and Scottie Viall operated the restaurant, renaming it The Dairy Barn. Don and Cathy Huckaby purchased it in 2015. The Huckabys had previously been in the grocery business in Malvern, Arkansas (Huckaby is a common name in this area of the state). Though Don passed away in 2019, the family still owns and runs the operation.
The current name of the restaurant – Garry’s Slingblade Drive In – comes from the 1996 film “Sling Blade,” written and directed by Benton native Billy Bob Thornton, who won an Academy Award for best actor for the portrayal of Karl Childers. Thornton has no involvement in the operation. From what I've been told, the Huckabys decided to both invoke the recognizable Garry's name and that of the popular movie. The combination has been a hit, particularly with traveling filmgoers who seek out movie location.
Even now, though, folks refer to the place as the Whopper Burger, Garry's, or The Dairy Barn - depending on when they became associated with the restaurant. I just remember it as the red dairy bar at the end of Cox Street.
Whatever the name, the location draws lots of folks, not just from around the region but around the neighborhood, and for good reason. The eatery reeks of nostalgia, from its small number of bar stools to its three booths, the walls bedecked with every bit of dairy bar culture, “Sling Blade” stills and signage it can possibly muster. The south end of the restaurant is a packed kitchen with a classic dairy bar walk up window on the end; an addition from the 1980s offers a very busy drive-up window for call-in orders.
The Huckaby's biggest contribution to the legacy, outside of the new name, is probably the family’s dedication to having local products available. When tomatoes are in season, they're absolutely fresh, as is other produce. Behind the counter, there are oodles of jars of jellies and the like, along with Juanita's brittles from Arkadelphia. Coolers offer a variety of bottled beverages, in case you'd rather get the true old-style, counter-service feel of cold glass over what's pulled from the fountain.
The menu, like so many of our dairy bars across Arkansas, has grown with the time. While early iterations include cheeseburgers, footlong hot dogs, pork tenderloin sandwiches and the ubiquitous pizza burger, more recent additions are available, such as catfish and shrimp po'boys, Philly cheesesteaks, and even pizza.
The gold standard is a dressed cheeseburger seasoned lightly and griddle fried, with American cheese melted on before being transferred to a lightly toasted bun. Fries are crispy crinkle-cut, an Americana style pairing that's been steady to the location since at least the 1970s. It's pretty much the exact same burger you would have received if you'd ordered it two generations earlier.
But I have to brag outright on the strawberry shake. Instead of today's norm of a flavored syrup blended into soft serve, Garry's uses actual sliced and sugared strawberries with its milk and ice cream, creating a throwback confection full of delightful nostalgia.
Garry’s is just one of 94 Arkansas homegrown dairy bars still in operation. To learn about more of these delightful destinations, tune in to Arkansas PBS Thursday, Aug. 19, for “Arkansas Dairy Bars: Neat Eats and Cool Treats.”
Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021
107 Westwood Dr., Marshall, Arkansas
Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021
“Arkansas Dairy Bars: Neat Eats and Cool Treats” premiere, 7 p.m.
VISIT GARRY'S SLINGBLADE DRIVE IN:
Garry’s Slingblade Drive In
619 Cox St., Benton, AR 72015
Swing by to take in the nostalgia – and possibly a serious shake – from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday or Saturday between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m.
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!