The Bottomless Cup

Story by Jane Barnes

The Brown Derby was a little “Route 66-style” cafe that sprang up on Highway 64 West in Russellville by the 1970’s. It was the sole beacon of food service on the west end of town, thus attracting the local senior coffee and newspaper crowd in the mornings. The Brown Derby was complimented on the east side of town by the Old South Restaurant (rumored to be an Elvis stopover en route to various music gigs in western Arkansas and Oklahoma.) Perhaps he never came through town early enough for a pile of bacon and a plate of biscuits slathered in butter or the Blue Plate special, which was the fare served up at the Derby.

The mystery was in the name. There never was a brown bowler derby or a “Derby” sign at the café. It was simply printed on the menu that was slid into clear plastic covers. The “Brown” could only have referred to the fine dust from the unpaved parking lot that sifted in with the customers, and that caked the tops of the plastic ivy leaves in the window boxes outsides.

But the Brown Derby, not a cousin to the one in Hollywood of 1934 Vintage, nor with reference to any particular color or to any manner of head covering, had its faithful clutch of coffee drinkers who didn’t care about fussy hats, color-matched décor, or designer coffee. It became the favorite coffee hangout for Bob Breeden and other retirees who loved the bottomless cup, a morning newspaper and the sharing of local news and weather. Bob and his wife Cookie, had moved from Oklahoma to Russellville to spend the retirement years near family, and to make a new set of friends. They played Bridge, too, but morning coffee at the Derby served up friends and conversation, opportunities every day. There was only one kind of coffee served; no latte or espresso, just hot! Starbucks was decades in the future and light years way in ambience.

The “rustic” charm of the Derby was in it’s attention to pure cafe functionality, such as the metal napkin holders with racks for salt and pepper, ketchup and hot sauce. You could sit at the oil cloth-covered tables, or at the counter and be closer to the friendly waitress, (the Philipino wife of the owner/ grill cook) with her winning smile and coffee pot in her hand. The real “charm” was that the Derby attracted any customers at all. But prices were rock bottom and breakfast would have appealed to the Southerners’ favorite diet of all things flavored with butter and bacon. The Derby attracted Bob (or Granddaddy as we all called him) because of the relaxed atmosphere, fewer people, easy parking and lack of glaring background music. Even the hearing-impaired seniors could hear each other talk.

Bob loved to linger with friends over his coffee and newspaper as he had done in Oklahoma in the 1930s, related to his weekly newspaper business, and later in the 50s when he met with constituents as an Oklahoma State Senator. His favorite line to waitresses in Oklahoma (about coffee refills) was “just enough to warm it up, but not enough to charge me!” To his delight, the Derby served a coffee-lover’s dream, the Bottomless Cup.

Others enjoyed “rusticating” at the Derby with Bob. They included a teller of legendary gator stories from Mississippi affectionately known as “Mississippi,” an outspoken retired mail carrier, several right-leaning politician types, a businessman with blue jeans that were starched and creased from the cleaners, and a gigantic athletic director of gigantic proportions. Blue and white collared all mingled together in a loose-knit kind of coffee fraternity of guys. Gary Barnes, who was both honored and harassed for being a Professor at Arkansas Tech, sometimes joined bob and the others as an apprentice who was a welcomed “working guy,” just easing toward retirement activities. Coffee klatching, a 50s catch phrase for a casual gathering for coffee and conversation, suited both Bob and Gary and they become bonded friends even after the days of the Brown Derby, and well into Bob’s 97th year. (The observed Bob’s 97th Birthday with a bottomless cup!”)

At the Derby, all subjects were open to discussion or criticism, including local politics, past professions  or employers, road construction, (West Main was being enlarged to four lanes,) rural water systems, sports, the weather, price of coffee, and the State of the Union. They hashed over problems as they sipped coffee and munched fried potatoes.

In the 1990s, the Derby closed and simply slipped into history with a retirement decision or a lease problem on the property.

To reunite, the group found solace in the coffee at Hardees down the street. It was a change of venue, change to Styrofoam cups, change from smiling waitress with pot of coffee, to “serve yourself,” and charges for refills. But the conversations continued with most of the same crew.

Shortly afterward, the Derby location was reinvented as the Time Out Café. The cooking was more creative, but it had a short run. The owner had been rumored to own a café in Dardanelle where several people had suffered food poisioning. This seemed to turn off potential diners!

In the waning days of the Time Out Café, a lunch order of navy beans was sent back to the kitchen for the cook to taste. He agreed that they were definitely spoiled. The embarrassesd waitress promised a slice of pecan pie in substitute. After a long wait, she sheepishly appeared, saying she didn’t know what to do because the pie was burned on the bottom. Two strikes and this diner was not coming back! Finally, a rougher biker crowd began hanging around the café, and it was finally closed down in a police raid. More than mere food was being “cooked” in the kitchen. It was a meth lab, right under our noses, requiring years to clean up. Perhaps that explains why the cook was distracted from regular food service.

The last incarnation of a café that tried to make a go of the location served Mango Smoothies and Bistro sandwiches with alfalfa sprouts, etc. Their cute beach motif, hula skirts and bamboo decorations lasted a season or two. But they closed for lack of customers and left a bright yellow and white exterior with green trim sitting vacant and hopeful on Hwy. 64 West. An abandoned surfboard mural is a ghostly reminder of the fun in surf and sand that frolics no more inside the location.

Conversely, the Old South Restaurant on Hwy. 64 East, frozen in time and now smoke-free, continues to spit out KC Sizzling Steaks (according to the red neon signs) and to wait for Elvis to return.

Bob and most of the seniors have passed on but leave a legacy of another era when life lingered over coffee and people spent time in conversations face to face. The experience can be recaptured for an evening in Hot Springs at the Arlington Hotel, a vintage 1875 hotel. One can listen or dance to live jazz music in the Art Deco Lounge/Lobby and sip coffee in a chunky café mug. The only kind of coffee is hot! That’s the way they serve it.

The old Brown Derby of Russellville, that once served eggs, toast, coffee and conversations to the Early Birds, burgers and Blue Plates to the bikers, and smoothies to the next generation now sits vacant and sad again, in it’s lovely yellow and green- trimmed lollipop paint job, waiting for whatever the new year will bring. Could it soar to new heights and offer coffee and even tea? How about a “Route 64” diner with real onion rings and a great soup du jour? Or could they feature a great turkey or chicken sandwich spotlighting our local poultry industry? For now, the old Derby place is a lonely lady, waiting… waiting. There may be solace in a cup!

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