Date: April 3, 2023 | Story: Stephanie Maxwell Newton | Photography: Bailey Dougan |
Opportunities to find good food, talented craftspeople, and outdoor exploration keep people coming back to this region of the state
Never say never—that’s the lesson learned by Joy Ellis, owner of Skylark Cafe in Leslie. She was born and raised in the small Ozarks town and during that time, her mom owned a café on Main Street, which she sold when Joy was 16. “She said, ‘Joy, you might want to take this over,’ and I was like, ‘I’m never going to have a restaurant,’” she recalls.
After an internship in Austin, Texas, Joy was drawn back to Leslie with the desire to buy and fix up an old house. “My mom really loves cool, small houses, and that rubbed off on me,” she says. She bought the Dr. J. O. Cotton House, a 1915 Craftsman-style home on the National Register of Historic Places. She thought it might make a nice bookstore or coffee shop, and she recruited family members to help gut and restore the residence to its former time period. “People did some terrible things to old houses in the ’70s and ’80s,” she says, laughing. “We tried to take it back to what it was and keep it as original as possible.”
Today, you can visit the Dr. J. O. Cotton House not as a bookstore or coffee shop, but as the charming Skylark Cafe. Over the years, there have been changes to the restaurant Joy swore she’d never own; for example, her sister took over the business for a stint when she moved to Austin for a change of pace. When Joy returned, her husband, Denver—a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef—came on board, and they incorporated more barbecue and Tex Mex flavorings into the menu. “We still have a lot of classics, but Denver brought his culinary expertise and really upped our game,” she says.
People come from all over to visit the Searcy County restaurant, which makes a perfect stop along the trek from Little Rock to Eureka Springs or for those looking to for a sit-down meal on trips to the Buffalo River. “We have a good percentage of locals, but our bread and butter is people going to Branson, Mountain View, places like that,” she says. The location is part of why Joy decided to move back to the Ozarks in the first place. Now, she and Denver have three children and make the most of the region’s rich opportunities. “We spend most of the summer out there on the Buffalo. We pack an ice chest and floaties and stay all day at Tyler Bend or Grinder’s Ferry,” she says. “Arkansas is just so nice. Even when the river is too low, or it’s too hot, we can hit the spring-fed creeks. Last night we found a new trail with little waterfalls. I’ve lived here my whole life and there are still things to discover wherever we go.”
In the past couple of years, the Ellises have expanded their business with the addition of a neighboring field where children can run and play right outside the restaurant’s doors. They also hope to grow vegetables and flowers on the land. In 2021, they opened Little Hill Shop, a gift store featuring local artists and makers. “We felt like in this area, we didn’t have a place to buy gifts for people. We’re 45 minutes from Walmart. We wanted to make a space where people can shop for something special,” she says. “The thing about rural areas is if you have a dream, you can kind of just create it. Things are affordable, so there are opportunities. If you do something well, people will appreciate you.” Read on for more of our favorite ways to discover the Ozarks.
“I’ve lived here my whole life, and there are still things to discover wherever we go.”
—Joy Ellis, Skylark Cafe
The rainbow steps between Main and Spring streets are a recent addition to Eureka Springs’ vibrant downtown.
T-shirts, candles, home goods, children’s books—there’s something for everyone at The Little Hill Shop (instagram.com/
thelittlehillshop) in Leslie. Just outside of town, don’t miss Serenity Farm Bread (serenityfarmbread.com), a bakery specializing in old-world sourdough bread. In Eureka Springs, foodies will want to visit Gourmet Eureka (gourmet-eureka.com) for a selection of tea and spices from around the globe as well as kitchenware, coffee, and local canned goods.
A trip through the Ozarks isn’t complete without lunch at Skylark Cafe (skylarkforever.com). Try the BBQ Chicken Quesadillas or Smoked Brisket Tacos, but be sure to save room for one of their fresh-daily desserts. In Eureka Springs, make a reservation for a night out at Grotto (grottoeureka.com), a wood-fired grill with an intimate atmosphere made even more enchanting by the cave walls surrounding the underground restaurant. Get your brunch fix at Eureka’s The Spring on Main (thespringonmain.com), where eggs benedict, charcuterie, and craft cocktails are the name of the game.
On April 1, Eureka Springs School of the Arts (essa-art.org) hosts Hands On ESSA, a free event welcoming people of all ages to try something new, from watercolor and wheel-thrown pottery to woodturning, weaving, and welding. Local artists and craftspeople will be offering live demonstrations and leading hands-on activities. The 60th annual Arkansas Folk Festival takes place April 14-15 in Mountain View. Visit the town’s downtown square for a market of artisan vendors, live music, and a parade—all free, open to the public, and in celebration of the region’s rich crafting traditions.