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After a recent visit to the U.S. Marshals Museum in Fort Smith, my dad and I stopped in downtown Van Buren to grab lunch. I’ve heard much about the revitalization of the historic district of this Western Arkansas town and decided it was time for us to see it for ourselves.
I researched using some of my usual tourism tools and found recommendations for a sports bar inside an old bank. After spending our morning learning about lawmen who hunted down robbers, it seemed like the perfect coupling to our day of adventures in Fort Smith.
Let me tell you, The Vault 1905 Sports Grill is a hidden secret. What we found by way of service and flavors exceeded our expectations, and the gems waiting inside were fantastic.
For locals, Thursday nights are the best time to visit The Vault, but the door is always open for those shopping the area: antique stores, history researchers, artists, or visitors looking for a great watering hole.
The current dining room of the restaurant was the original site of the J. Hinkle & Brothers General Store. John Hinkle opened the store that was later known as Hinkle Hall. The store was a prominent trade location for the Cherokee Indians and others seeking access between Western Arkansas and Indian Territory.
A portion of the original rock wall still stands between the kitchen and back bar, with many believing it’s one of the three oldest non-residential structures still standing in the River Valley and the only commercial building in the historic district built before the Civil War.
During the Civil War, Union Troops seized the property from the Hinkle family, using it as a hospital through 1867. From there, historical surveys show the town using the building as a Masonic lodge and ballroom. As downtown Van Buren grew in artistic expression, performing groups and a Glee Club shared the property with the Masons.
In 1904, Citizens Bank purchased the Hinkle Corner, and John Blevins was issued a contract to build the building standing today at 7th and Main Street. While the backside was still referred to as Hinkle Hall and used for barbershops and stores throughout the years, the Press Argus Newspaper moved into the second floor, above the bank, through the 1920s, where many hand drawings still adorn the walls from the editorial room. During their time, they drew timelines on the walls of historical events.
Over time, many retail businesses occupied the spot at 7th and Main until Lonnie and Mindy London opened The Vault 1905 Sports Grill. The original 1900s stained glass windows remain, and a tin roof inlay atop 18-foot ceilings helps visitors understand a time gone by. The Londons enjoyed riding their motorcycle through the area. They decided to settle in Van Buren, establish a ranch, and open a restaurant that would complement the other things happening in Downtown Van Buren.
When we entered the front door of The Vault, I was fully prepared to have a burger and regular drop-in-the-fryer-type appetizers. But the menu surprised us. From reviews, I could see they did have a great burger, but everyone kept talking about this gigantic chicken-fried steak.
My dad let me do the ordering and was very envious when the cowboy next to us had a chicken-fried steak delivered to his table. The flattened beef steak was over the edges of his oval restaurant dish. The mounded-up mashed potatoes and green beans hung out in a moat of white gravy. The country boy across from me was not sure he would have finished it, but he wanted to try!
Our waitress kept reminding us to come back on a Thursday evening where the same portion is the weekly special of $11 while they host karaoke night and special entertainment district live music nights. At that point in our lunch, my daddy was ready to drive in from Dallas the next weekend or sometime this fall to watch the changing colors and have dinner.
The real gem we discovered that day was the cauliflower pizza crust. Neither of us believed the waitress, but we took her advice that “we would never be able to tell.” Well, she made a believer of both of us. It was a perfectly thin pizza crust, reminiscent of an artisan oven-roasted preparation. We shared the taco pizza that day, and my husband had the barbecue chicken. He was the real believing test, and he said he’d be back in a heartbeat and order the same thing again.
We rounded out our lunch by sharing the Pimento Chicken Sliders with a side of fried okra. Anytime I see a sandwich or burger with pimento cheese spread on top, I’m usually a sucker for the dish. But these were great, and the slider size was perfect for eating without getting that melty pimento cheese spread all over my face. But that would have probably been OK, too!
Since my initial visit, I’ve been back on a business trip and finally ordered a burger. I just had to. And, while I skipped the mid-day beer, I noticed several folks around us were enjoying some of the local breweries they had on tap.
The Vault 1905 Sports Grill is an excellent spot for watching a game, whether baseball, basketball, or cheering on the Hogs this fall. A family would be completely comfortable eating inside with their children among the tables and floors recycled from a local bowling alley. It’s just the perfect eclectic feel of sports memorabilia with food elevated enough for a business lunch or where your granny can get a little rowdy cheering for the Hogs, and your college-aged son would be OK bringing his roommate and friends.
Or, as the owners like to say – where friends gather, memories are made, and the games never end.
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