I hope this note finds you well.
In the days before fast food, there were traditional meat-and-three cafés across the South. For a modest price you could get a meat, three sides, homemade rolls, and iced tea; for a little extra they would throw in a piece of meringue pie. Benton and Saline County were no exceptions.
Jim Sims arrived in Benton in 1916, departed the train, and walked up the hill to the town proper. Soon, he caught a whiff of chili and followed the scent to Curley’s Café on Main Street. In an article he wrote in 1937, he detailed all of the other businesses he could remember, and no other cafés were mentioned. It seems reasonable to assume that Curley’s was, if not the first, one of the first standalone cafésin the city of Benton.
By the 1930s, mom-and-pop cafés began to proliferate in the city. Some of the earliest of this new generation of restaurants included the Carmack (1930), the Corner Cupboard (1930s—the corner of Carpenter and Market), the Lone Star Café (1931—North Main), Lessie Nelson’s café (1940s—North Main), the Desoto Café (1938—North Military), Uncle Bill’s Barbeque (1946—South Street), and the Triangle Café (1940s—North Military.)
The longest-lasting tradition goes to Ed and Kay’s, on the western edge of town just before the old highway crosses the Ed Dodson Bridge over the Saline River heading toward Malvern.
Pat Newcomb was a carpenter looking for a way to make extra income. His family owned a small piece of property near a bluff overlooking the Saline River on the western outskirts of Benton. In the early 1950s, he put his carpentry skills to use and built a two-room café.
For the next twelve years, Pat and his family ran Pat’s café. The café had no posted hours; they were open when they had food and closed when the food was gone. During the late 1950s, Alma French went to work waiting tables for Pat. Pat and Alma created their famous mile-high meringue pies during this period. In the early 1960s, Pat had a heart attack and was forced to retire. In the early 1960s, Alma and Ed, her husband, purchased the café and changed the name to ED AND ALMA’S. Ed ran the night shift and did the prep work.
Kay Diemer relates: “By the ’70s, Alma had been here for at least thirteen years, and she wanted to retire. So Ed [a different Ed] and I decided to buy the restaurant. I’d never worked in a cafe and certainly never owned one. I didn’t even know how to do restaurant cooking. For thirty days, Alma taught us how to do everything—it was a lot to learn. When we came in, it was seven days a week, three shifts, twenty-four hours a day.” Ed and Kay changed the name and wrote the new name in large white letters on the roof that could be seen from I-30.
After thirty-one years, Kay decided she had done about as much as she could and closed up shop. An Italian restaurant made a brief go of it, but soon enough it appeared this wonderful establishment had seen its last customer. Yet, at this point, in walked Diana Young. After purchasing the property from Kay, Diana spent two years giving the old facility a complete facelift and changing the name.
She held her breath and opened the doors of Blue Heaven. With a menu of Southern staples, European, Spanish, and Asian cuisine, she has something for everyone’s tastes. She hired a wonderful chef, Elon, who has an amazing repertoire of different flavors and styles of food. Following Pat’s tradition, many of the desserts are produced by the owner herself. She has a wonderful wait staff of young kids who, like their boss, are anxious to please.
Have a good journey,
(Much of the information in this article was gleaned from interviews with Brenda Johnson, daughter of Pat Newcomb; Kay Diemer of Ed and Kay’s; Steve Purdue; and the ladies of the Saline County Historical Society.)
Dr. Sam Taggart is a retired doctor/writer/marathon runner in practice in Benton for the last 45 years. He recently released Country Doctors of Arkansas, published by the Arkansas Times. His other books, The Public’s Health: A narrative history of health and disease in Arkansas, With a Heavy Heart and We All Hear Voices are available at your local booksellers or online at amazon.com.