Rose Schweikhart has a master’s degree in classical tuba, and now she runs a brewery in a bathhouse in Hot Springs.
It’s an almost impossible story when you think about it: A homebrewer with no business experience convinced the U.S. Department of the Interior to let her turn a historic building on National Park land into a brewpub serving beers made with the same thermal spring water that made the city so famous in the first place.
It was a years-long process, but in 2016, Superior Bathhouse Brewery opened in a 100-year-old building on Central Avenue that had been vacant for 30 years. It’s now a full-service restaurant with top-notch food — think burgers, banh mi, fries and interesting dipping sauces — and a full-time brewer who keeps about 18 beers on tap.
If you’re planning a trip to Hot Springs, here’s a guide to where to eat and how to navigate the famous baths to ensure you find a hot springs experience that’s right for you. (The thermal mineral water is free to drink or collect from the city taps, but you’ll have to pay to take a bath in it. No open-air bathing in the woods, sadly.)
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In terms of dining, Superior Bathhouse Brewery should definitely be on your to-eat list, but there are a lot of other restaurants worth trying, too.
There are a couple of reasons McClard’s BAR-B-Q has been around since 1928: pork ribs and cole slaw, among them. The McClard family sold the restaurant during COVID, but fourth-generation Scott McClard still works there. I’m no Daniel Vaughn, but I thought the barbecue was delicious. Skip the signature tamale, though. It’s made by mixing the leftover pork and beef into the masa, a regional specialty that wasn’t to my taste. But those pork ribs, turkey, sausage, brisket and best-in-show carrot cake? Easy thumbs up.
For a nice meal that’s not downtown, go straight to an unassuming shopping center near Lake Hamilton called J&S Italian Villa. If you’re lucky, the effervescent owners Jeannie and Saddiq Mir will be on hand to tell you about the menu or how this globetrotting couple came to settle in Hot Springs. Eat whatever they serve you, and save room for dessert. We didn’t get to check out their downtown eatery, Copper Penny Pub, but under their management, I have high expectations.
Another delightful culinary experience awaits at the buzzing Deluca’s Pizzeria downtown, where owner and Brooklyn native Anthony Valinoti will serve one of the best burgers you’ve ever had before the first pizza hits the table. (Ask him the story behind it, and you’ll learn that spite is the secret ingredient. And a special kind of beef he has shipped in from New York City each week.)
The most unexpectedly amazing meal came one morning at Best Cafe, a little cafe next to Best Court, a 1930s-era motel with cute little drive-up rooms.
Chef Joshua Garland took over this historic haunt last year and is turning it into a hotspot. I had pork belly on gouda grits with gochujang, which was hard to beat until I saw my travel companion’s choice: French toast with grilled pineapple.
For a low-key breakfast, go to the nearby Cafe Kahlo, which serves Mexico City-style Mexican food.
Another nice spot downtown is Kollective Coffee + Tea, a Third Wave coffee house that serves Onyx coffees and organic salads, sandwiches and soups. Although a new business, Kollective continues to host Wednesday Night Poetry, which started in 1989 and is the longest-running poetry series in the country.
If you really want to indulge in Hot Springs, check out a new bed and breakfast called The Reserve, a stunning mansion overlooking Oaklawn horse track that has been beautifully preserved over the years. Guests in the 12 rooms get to enjoy a three-course breakfast that rivals the Four Seasons plus desserts at the end of the day. (I just looked at the rates, and the rooms are a lot less than I thought they would be! Lookout Point Lakeside Inn is another property we checked out with nice bites — and an incredible view of the lake.)
For drinks, the only bar we experienced was the historic Ohio Club, the most classic of all places to grab a drink in Hot Springs. If those walls could talk…
Now, about those baths.
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Before 1967, Hot Springs was known for three things: gambling, medicinal hot springs and baseball. After gambling ended, the community struggled to fill all those hotel rooms and the bathhouses. The bathhouses started closing in the 1960s, and by the 1980s, there was only one still in operation: the Buckstaff Bathhouse.
It’s a miracle that the Buckstaff remained open during those lean years. But that continued operation means that the Buckstaff still has the most traditional bathing experience in Hot Springs. Men and women are separated into groups. Everyone wears a sheet and has their own attendant, who moves you from station to station.
In recent years, the Quapaw, Hale and Arlington have re-opened with various reinterpretations of the kind of bathing culture that was once prevalent at every bathhouse.
At the Hotel Hale, guests have spring-fed bathtubs in their private rooms. The Arlington Hotel offers baths and massages in its thermal spa. At the Quapaw Baths, the most recent to re-open, bathers in swimsuits share thermal baths that are kind of like indoor hot tubs. You can also rent individual time in a tub at this bathhouse.
(There are eight bathhouses on Bathhouse Row, including the bathhouse-turned-brewery at Superior. The Ozark Bathhouse is a gallery, and the Lamar Bathhouse houses National Park offices and a store called the Bathhouse Row Emporium. The Maurice, closed in 1974, is the only one that remains unoccupied at the moment. The Fordyce is now a visitors center and museum operated by Hot Springs National Park. )
Almost all of the bathhouses offer spa and massage services, and generally speaking, kids aren’t allowed. (Children can stay with their parents at the Hale, though, and enjoy a soak under parental supervision.)
Last month, I got to experience a traditional bath at The Buckstaff, whose staff were exceptionally caring and sensitive to the fact that all of the guests are dressed in nothing more than sheets and many of us were first-timers.
I started in a private whirlpool bath, followed by some time on a table with hot towels and then a stint in a steam cabinet and a sitz bath. I ended my bathhouse with a 20-minute massage that left my muscles feeling like butter.
My main attendant, LaToya, exemplified that radical care I’ve been writing about this year. Each time we interacted, she said my name and asked if I was doing OK.
It’s the kind of thing that feels as nourishing as the baths.
Pro tip: Bring cash so you can tip the folks who are helping you. The bath-massage combo at Buckstaff is $89 and takes between 90 minutes and two hours. Each attendant has a stack of small manilla envelopes by their table. Plan on tucking $10 into each, and you’ll leave feeling even better.
It’s worth noting that the bathhouses were segregated up until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and there were Black-only bathhouses on Malvern Street. I get the impression that Black entertainers and athletes were able to move freely in Hot Springs, even during the Jim Crow era, but the local Black residents made up most of the workforce.
Hot Springs still felt predominately white, but there were plenty of queer- and BIPOC-friendly spaces, particularly the Superior Bathhouse Brewery. Start there. (See if Katie from Austin is around. She helped start Torchy’s Tacos and now runs the Superior with Rose.)
Go see LaToya at Buckstaff and Joshua at Best Cafe. Watch the short videos at Robert Raines’ Gangster Museum of America that include folks like Ed Atwater, a bell captain who worked for more than 50 years at the busiest hotels and clubs in Spa City.
These are the people who made Hot Springs such a special place to visit then and who are bringing it back to life today.