How do you measure the authenticity of a community? Though there are several ways to do so, in Arkansas a highly accurate cultural barometer certainly has to be one’s stomach. In the universal custom of hospitality, if you wanted to give an outta towner a thorough representation of your community, you’re probably going to take them to your favorite restaurant – a place that has great food paired with fond memories.

In essence, this is what the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame (AFHOF) is all about – a program created by Arkansas Heritage that honors Arkansas’s culinary legacy and highlights the state’s legendary restaurants, food festivals, and all the people who make it all possible. Stacy Hurst, Secretary of the Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, put this program together in 2015 as a way to engage the state in a conversation about food as heritage: the intersection of history and culture.

In celebration of everything Arkansas food, each year the program presents awards in five categories: 

  • Food Hall of Fame – This award recognizes those long-standing restaurants that have become legendary attractions in Arkansas. With representation across the state and food spectrum, winners have included renowned restaurants such as Jones Bar-B-Que, Lassis Inn, Cattleman’s Steak House, Monte Ne Chicken, Murry’s Restaurant and Star of India.
  • Proprietor of the Year – This award honors a chef, cook and/or restaurant owner in Arkansas who has made significant achievements in the food industry. Matt McClure, Scott McGehee, Loretta Tacker, Mary Beth Ringgold and the members of the Continental Cuisine Partnership have been the winners of this honor. 
  • Food-Themed Event – This award honors a community food-themed event or festival that makes our state a great place to live and visit. Food festivals that have won are the Bradley County Pink Tomato Festival, International Greek Food Festival, Hope Watermelon Festival, Gillett Coon Supper and Cave City Watermelon Festival.
  • Gone But Not Forgotten – Remembers the collective culinary legacy of a once-and-always influential Arkansas restaurant that has since ceased operations. Restaurants include Cotham’s Mercantile, Klappenbach Bakery, Shadden’s BBQ  and Roy Fisher’s Steak House.
  • People’s Choice – Identifies the public’s favorite. This award is truly in the hands of Arkansans. The restaurant or food truck that receives the highest number of votes wins. The restaurants that have represented the people so far have included The Grotto, JJ’s Lakeside Cafe, Honey Pies Bakery, The Ohio Club, and most recently Bistro Bar & Grill.

The process to be inducted into the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame kicks off each October when Arkansas Heritage invites the public to submit nominations. Once the nomination period closes,  the AFHOF committee, made up of some of the state’s most knowledgeable foodies, food lovers and food historians, narrow down finalists, from which winners will then be chosen. The winners and finalists are then honored at an induction ceremony hosted in February. The announcement also serves as an opportunity for members from all areas of the state’s food community to come together and celebrate the Great State of the Plate. 

The fifth year of the program has been a memorable one, for the best and most difficult reasons at the same time. The pandemic has stretched Arkansas’s food community to its limit. Restaurants have been operating under trying conditions and, sadly, many of these establishments have closed their doors. Food festivals have been unable to fully come together and celebrate their yearly events. Proprietors are facing real challenges and sacrifices.

“Each year we take pride in honoring some of the incredible restaurants and industry stakeholders within our state, but something felt extra special this year,” said Secretary Hurst of the 2021 program.

However, it’s certainly not a lost year. For one thing, Arkansans from across the state have reached deep and shown their beloved food institutions. Further, the food community has shown remarkable leadership, creativity and perseverance through a period when uncertainty at times seemed to be the only constant.

Last month, through a virtual ceremony, the fifth class was inducted into the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame. Though the food community wasn’t able to come together physically, people throughout the state celebrated at home, passionately rooting for their beloved food institutions. Our food heritage in Arkansas is certainly something to be honored, supported and continued and the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame is a special place to do just that.