Announcements and publicity associated with the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame

2020 Gone But Not Forgotten Finalists

Department of Arkansas Heritage - Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Co-authored by Joseph Alley, curator at The Helena Museum of Phillips County and Victoria Chandler, Arkansas Made researcher at Historic Arkansas Museum.

The Arkansas Food Hall of Fame's Gone But Not Forgotten category honors the collective culinary legacy of a once-and-always influential Arkansas restaurant that has since ceased operations. The reason for the closure is not important. It is the influence that the food – and/or those who prepared it – still have on other restaurants that matters. Take a fond trip down memory lane to nominate an old favorite. The following are the 2020 Gone But Not Forgotten finalists.

Habib's Café - Helena (Phillips County)

Habib's Cafe during the late 1970s - early 1980s, collection of The Helena Museum of Phillips County

Habib's Cafe was a beloved restaurant and entertainment venue that was in operation for over 85 years in downtown Helena. Habib's (pronounced Habby's by local Helenians) was founded in 1888 by brothers Habib and Antione Etoch (pronounced Etosh), a few years after they immigrated to the U.S. from Syria.

Originally the Etoch brothers opened Habib’s as a delicatessen and soda fountain; however they quickly expanded it into a full restaurant. According to a 1910 advertisement in the Daily Arkansas Gazette, the restaurant’s offerings included “oysters, candies, fruits, bread, and fancy cakes to order.” Eventually, the enterprise was moved to the 500 block of Cherry Street, where it remained for over fifty years.

In 1911, a ballroom was added to the restaurant and it was during this time that Habib's began to host local social groups, featuring concerts with orchestras brought in from Memphis and St. Louis. It also hosted musicians like W.C. Handy, who warmly recalled “making merry” in Habib’s pool room in the late 1910s. The cafe also offered special menus to correspond with shows performing at the Helena Grand Opera House the next block over.

Habib sold the restaurant and ballroom in 1929 to his grandsons, Najeeb and Michael Namour. One of the first things the brothers instituted while running the business was a bourbon bonded fruitcake for large-scale production. They started selling it at the national level in the early 1930s, signing contracts with The May Department Stores Company and Marshall Fields & Company. The fruitcakes were sold in an easily identifiable round, red tin.

During World War II, parents would often send Habib's fruitcakes to their sons who were being held in German POW camps. The story goes that the POWs shared the fruitcake with their German guards, who later tracked it back to Helena to order more for themselves. By the late 1940s massive amounts of worldwide orders were placed every year. This culminated in the U.S. Postal Service opening a temporary postal branch office in the kitchen of Habib's Cafe during Christmas in the late 1950s in order to process the fruit cake orders that had to be mailed throughout the world.

Around 1978, Habib's closed, a victim of the declining economy in the Arkansas Delta. Despite a brief reopening by locals from Phillips County, the cafe shuttered its doors for good in the late 1980s. With over 85 years of service to the Helena Community, its closure is dearly missed. Though the cafe is no more, the legacy of Habib and Antoine Etoch remains in Helena. Every adult has a memory of either attending one of the party's at Habib's ballroom or having Sunday lunch in the cafe. Many more remember buying fresh bread or meat from the delicatessen or getting a soda from the soda fountain. But the most treasured memory is of the fruitcakes. Almost every other house in the county has an empty red fruitcake tin in the back of the closet, and many more are still floating around all over the world as a testament to the business acumen of the Etoch and Namour families.

Mary Maestri’s - Tontitown (Washington County)

Mary Maestri serving priests, courtesy of the Tontitown Historical Museum

One of the oldest restaurants in Arkansas, Mary Maestri’s is an Ozark legend. Back in 1904, a woman named Mary Ritter met Aldo Maestri at the Tontitown Grape Festival. The two fell in love and eventually got married. Aldo was born in Italy and Mary, who was originally from Tennessee, was born to German parents. During their first years of marriage, Aldo’s parents and brother lived with the newlyweds, and it can be assumed that Mary’s mother-in-law taught her the secrets of authentic Italian cuisine. 

Like many Italian families in Arkansas, the origins of the Aldos in the state began in 1895 when hundreds of Italians immigrated to southern Arkansas to work as tenant farmers on the Sunnyside Plantation in Chicot County. In 1898, dozens of families chose to follow Father Pietro Bandini northwest to the Ozarks. This new settlement eventually became Tontitown, which was incorporated in 1909. This new Italian community began planting vineyards, as the terrain of the Arkansas Ozarks mimics that of Italy.

However, after the grape harvest failed in 1923, the Maestris began selling dinners out of their home, converting it into a restaurant. In those days, everything was made from scratch in the family’s kitchen, including the wine Aldo made and the chickens Mary would catch and clean from their farm. To eat at the restaurant, a reservation was required and to get one you would have had to know the right person to call, as the Maestris didn’t own a telephone. The restaurant became so popular that they signed on with a chicken processor as their farm couldn’t keep up with the demand.

Eventually, the family opened up a larger restaurant in 1947. The couple’s son, Edward, helped modernize the Maestri’s production. He built machines for his mother that would cut and roll the pasta. Additionally, he learned the best process for freezing the meat sauce and spaghetti, which the family sold to grocery stores across the state. A remarkable feat for the time, before frozen TV dinners were a staple in the American diet.

After Aldo passed away in 1959, Edward took over running the restaurant as Mary Maestri’s stayed a family affair as the children and grandchildren either learned the business or recipes of the family. In the 1970s, grandson Daniel built an even larger restaurant and home for the Maestri’s. Over the decades, Mary Maestri’s moved to different locations and was managed by the grandchildren of Mary and Aldo. The restaurant eventually closed its doors in 2010, but reopened in Springdale in 2012. Mary Maestri’s finally shuttered its doors in 2016.

Shadden’s BBQ - Marvel (Phillips County)

Shadden's BBQ, courtesy of the Shadden family

For over forty years, Shadden’s BBQ was one of the great cultural icons of Arkansas. Opened by Wayne Shadden in a 100-year-old country store in Marvell (Phillips County), Shadden’s drew fans from across the country, who came from miles away to taste its famous barbecue. It was hard to believe that the rickety structure was home to one of Arkansas’s most popular food joints.

It was described by Gary Saunders of Dixie Dining as “a cross between a roadside grocery and a museum.” The walls were lined with newspaper clippings, magazine stories, yellowed family photographs and images from Wayne’s time in the Navy. Sausages, jars of pickled eggs and giant dill pickles lined the top of the cooler.

Though it was a simple menu, hot or mild, regular or jumbo, with slaw or without it, Wayne’s cooking and his wife Vivian's sauce recipe made for an award winning combo. One of Shadden’s most famous fans, Levon Helm, apparently had cases of the sauce shipped to his home in New York. It was sold in grocery stores across the state, and the recipe appeared in the “High Cotton Cookin’: A Collection of Southern Country Recipes” cookbook in 1978.
Shadden’s BBQ remained at the top of many Arkansans’ list as the best barbecue in the state. The 88th General Assembly of the House of Representatives publicly recognized Wayne Shadden’s “contribution to Southern food culture, the State of Arkansas, and his local community” (House Memorial Resolution 1003).

Soon after Wayne Shadden’s passing in 2010, Shadden’s BBQ closed. Commentators from across the state and beyond sang the restaurant's praise with Rex Nelson summing up Wayne’s legacy perfectly: “For true Delta barbecue aficionados, he was one of the masters.”

The winner of the Gone But Not Forgotten category, along with the four other categories, will be announced at the 2020 Arkansas Food Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony on Monday, Feb. 24, at Ron Robinson Theater in downtown Little Rock. Tickets can be purchased here.