Visiting a state park might not be the first thing that comes to mind when looking for your next culinary experience. High above the rest of Arkansas, Mount Magazine State Park is hoping to change that with some surprisingly good cooking at the Skycrest restaurant located in Mount Magazine’s Lodge.
Good food on the mountain has not always been a thing however. I remember taking frequent trips to Mount Magazine with my grandmother growing up. She is the type that would invite me to lunch at various hospital cafeterias around the Little Rock area, even she wouldn’t eat at the lodge’s restaurant at the time. Talk to many locals around the area and they will echo the same sentiment.
That all seemed to slowly change a couple of years ago when chef Coeta Dooly took over the kitchen.
Dooly’s story of transforming the kitchen is nothing short of remarkable. Dooly worked for the Whirlpool manufacturing plant in Fort Smith, and for some time ran a small catering business on the side. She was closing in on retirement when, at age 55, the plant was shut down and Dooly along with hundreds of other workers found themselves without a job. Instead of giving up, Dooly decided to go to culinary school at Oklahoma State University.
She began her culinary career at 57, working as an intern at Mount Magazine Lodge, and took over the kitchen not long after.
“I love the creativity I get to have here,” Dooly says proudly. “It gives me the chance to come up with interesting dishes and continue to refine my cooking skills.”
The dishes are unexpected to say the least. Checking menus at other parks you find a lot of burgers, sandwiches, bbq, and fried products. Not that some of that is not found here, but even those are better than expected. The burgers are using meat from Grass Roots Coop for example, and you will find things like a Banh Mi on the sandwich list.
What really stands out are the items that you would expect to see in a major market restaurant, not tucked away on a mountain that previously housed a glorified cafeteria.
I checked out a couple of the more creative things on the menu such as the Southwestern Banh Xeo, which was a bed of rice topped with a pork belly filled crepe and spicy mole sauce. I was skeptical ordering the dish, but it turned out to be one of the best things I’ve eaten in Arkansas outside of the major Central and NWA markets.
Dooly also is willing to cook up specials and even multi-course tasting menus on request (with advanced notice). She pulled together a salmon stuffed puff pastry with a dill cream sauce while I was visiting, something that really showcased some pastry skills as well with intricate styling of the pastry. I also tried the bison meatballs and fried pork belly from the appetizer menu, both turned out well.
It is really the type of menu the restaurant deserves. The whole dining room is framed in huge floor to ceiling windows overlooking the side of the mountain. It is simply one of the most breathtaking of any restaurant I have dined. It is on par with a cliff side restaurant in La Jolla and a rooftop bar in San Francisco.
The lodge is also a wonderful place to make a quick weekend getaway. It is roughly 2 hours from both Little Rock or NWA. The rooms overlook the side of the mountain as well, or stay down in a cabin on the side of the mountain for an even better experience. A short drive from Mount Magazine is Prestonrose Brewery, which is one of our favorite breweries in the whole state. You can also head over to the town of Paris that has Grapevine restaurant and a few shops and attractions to visit.
Skycrest restaurant is open everyday from 7a.m. – 9 p.m., and also features a full service bar. There are three rentable banquet rooms for any events you want to host on the mountain, and chef Dooly will work with you to create a special menu for the event.