I digress down memory lane today. I just heard that a Little Rock institution, Browning’s Restaurant, is closed. The news greatly saddened me. A restaurant should not feel like part of one’s family, but Browning’s did. Nestled in Little Rock’s Heights neighborhood it had been serving Mexican food, blue plate specials, fried catfish and cheeseburgers all reasonably priced for over 60 years. My father and its owner, Boyd Montgomery, were friends when I was born in Little Rock, and Dad took me to Browning’s for Saturday morning breakfast before I could walk. When we returned to Little Rock, Dad immediately was a regular at the round table for breakfast and lunch. The round table was in the front room where the counter was located. Local business men would stroll in for coffee and local news.
My high school friends were regulars as well. I cannot imagine how many gallons of cheese dip and chips I consumed. We were relegated to the dining room in the back. You had to be a “regular” to sit in the front room. The waitresses never changed,they knew your name, and wore orange skirts and Little Rock’s version of a Mexican white blouse. I had my first real date there. We shared a coke and of course, cheese dip. When my parent’s would travel to Fayetteville to watch me play football they always brought a quart of Browning’s dip and chips to the joy of my roommates and me, of course.
Suzy has her own memories as well. She would walk in snow to eat cheese dip and have a fruit punch with Suzette. Marty taught her how to spread dip and salsa on a soft taco, roll it up, and enjoy. Our son, Walter, learned how to dip saltines in the dip within a few months of birth and they never complained about cracker crumbs being everywhere when we would leave. Walter’s children followed the tradition soon after their birth, as well.
Management changed hands along the way, but since it went to its long time manager, Gary Phelan, everything wonderful about the place didn’t change. They did stop cooking breakfast at some point, so the round table moved to Bard’s around the corner. My father who was working out of town then was saddened, but it didn’t him from joining the Round table and more importantly keep him away for lunch. My mother, a southern lady, loved Browning’s as well. Even into her 70’s she never turned down an invitation to go to Browning’s, and despite her southern manners, God help you if you got between her and the cheese dip.
All my children have special memories of Browning’s. They were part of the Browning’s family. Many times, I would be at the cash register paying for my lunch and be reminded that Walter or Rebecca had been in a few days earlier and forgot their money. My kids, my grandkids, Suzy, and I never returned to LR without an obligatory trip to Browning’s. Suzy’s Mom who is in her 80’s still pulls me aside and asks if we can go to Browning’s, which I am happy to oblige. A few years ago Gary retired and sold Browning’s. I knew there was a problem when we went and everyone was new, except one waitress. The staff were all wearing T-shirts that said, “ Yes, We still have the Saltillo Plate!” The Saltillo plate consisting of one beef enchilada, one cheese enchilada, and on crispy beef taco was a staple for 60 years. “If one has to ask, there’s a problem,” I thought then
Now Browning’s is closed. E-mails from my Arkansas teammates and friends have been filling the Internet all day. Everyone wants to talk about how a small local restaurant affected their lives. Why? I can’t explain in words. (Yes I am engaging in Nostalgia.) The food was good not great. I believe what brings forth my emotions and the emotions of many, was its atmosphere of love, comfort, and simplicity. You were always welcome at Browning’s. You could eat in a hurry or take your time, it didn’t matter. Quality of food and service never depended on how much you spent. You got their attention whether you merely ordering a punch and chips w/salsa or a full meal for 8. You always saw someone you knew. When Suzy and I came from DC to visit the restaurant was filled with friendly faces.
Suzy and I were coming back to LR this September for a visit. I had already penciled in “lunch at Browning’s” on my schedule. I plan on going by even if it is closed. Thoreau never ate at Browning’s but I think he had a Browning’s in mind when he wrote:
Their memories will be encrusted over with sublime and pleasing thoughts, as monuments of other men are overgrown with moss; for our friends have no place in the graveyard.