The aroma of good food frying permeates the air as you approach the J. Huston Tavern in historic Arrow Rock.
Inside the brick two-story building, a plaque on the wall explains what’s cooking. Rural Missouri magazine named the fried chicken tops in the state in the latest poll of its readers.
Built in 1834 and once in danger of being razed, the tavern was the first property in Missouri bought by the state for historic preservation. It’s now billed as one of the oldest continuously operating restaurants west of the Mississippi.
Arrow Rock, which has about 50 or so permanent residents, celebrates its association with Westward Expansion, the Santa Fe Trail and artist George Caleb Bingham. The village is just a 15-minute drive off Interstate 70 in northwest Missouri, but makes for a tranquil trip into long ago.
Just four blocks wide and eight blocks long, Arrow Rock features a two-block boardwalk of shops offering antiques and handmade gifts. The town’s architectural heirlooms are scattered in a park-like setting.
Arrow Rock does have its busy times, thanks to another of the town’s celebrated institutions, the Lyceum Theatre. During the theater’s season, visitors flock to Arrow Rock to dine at J. Huston and take in a play.
The theater’s schedule this season includes: “Buddy-The Buddy Holly Story,” Aug. 22-31; “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Sept. 8-15; and “Sanders Family Christmas,” Nov. 10-18.
Arrow Rock has two other award-winning restaurants: Arrow Rock Station serves dinner year-round Friday and Saturday and on theater dates, Catalpa is open from Easter to New Year’s for dinner on Friday and Saturday evenings and on evenings of theater performances.
Arrow Rock, and the restored railroad town of Blackwater (eight miles away), can be visited anytime, but weekends generally are the best time to find the shops and historic buildings open. For visitors who wish to stay overnight, Arrow Rock has six bed and breakfasts and Blackwater has the historic Iron Horse Hotel.
The J. Huston Tavern was built by Joseph Huston, an early Arrow Rock settler and civic leader from Virginia. Planned as the family home, the building welcomed immigrants heading west and became known for its overnight lodging and meals.
Today, the tavern is part museum and part restaurant.
The Daughters of the American Revolution, which pushed the state to save the building, has restored a first-floor summer kitchen with period furnishings. Three bedrooms and a spacious ballroom upstairs also are furnished, and open to tours by reservation.
The restaurant, which seats up to 140 people in three rooms and the “tap room,” is open for lunch Tuesday through Sunday, and dinner on Saturday. The Sunday lunch menu is family-style, all-you-can-eat fried chicken and raspberry-chipotle glazed ham, which also is offered on nights when the Lyceum Theatre is performing. There is full bar service.
The tavern, which operates Easter through mid-December, can be reserved for groups of 35 or more, and is available for private parties, special events, wedding receptions and business meetings.
A stop by the restored railroad town of Blackwater can be a bit more rambunctious, especially if you spend time at the Bucksnort Saloon.
Owners Gerald and Connie Cunningham have recreated a tavern right out of the Old West. The tavern is a family affair, so the Cunninghams sell no liquor, only sarsaparilla and other old-fashioned sodas for $2, plus packaged ice cream treats for a buck.
The Cunninghams also operate the Bucksnort Trading Co. next door, and sell items aimed at their first love, supplies for historic reenactors.
The shop, which has a second location in Arrow Rock, has in its inventory herbs, soaps, onyx carvings from Pakistan, palm-leaf hats from Guatemala, Zapotec weavings from Mexico, wood bowls from Indonesia and woven baskets from Missouri.
Sitting mostly on a double-wide block of Main Street, Blackwater has half a dozen collectible and antique stores, an old-time jailhouse, the West End Theatre and one of the country’s few museums dedicated to the telephone.
Blackwater is named for the river that flows nearby, but got its lifeblood from the railroad.
Another local product, Bobby Danner, restored the Iron Horse Hotel next to the tracks and the rebuilt train depot. The hotel is now a bed and breakfast, with a restaurant that operates on Fridays and Saturdays.
Written by Tom Uhlenbrock, Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Division of State Parks