Experience Oaklawn: An Evening on Central Ave.

Events / Travel
Be sure to stop by The Ohio Club if you visit Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark. and be sure to allow plenty of time to explore Central Ave. (Photo courtesy of The Ohio Club)

Race goers looking to extend a good time that starts at Oaklawn Park should consider an evening in downtown Hot Springs, Ark. An epic itinerary with a splash of history awaits a little farther down Oaklawn’s address of Central Ave.

Begin at DeLuca’s Pizzeria, which serves artisanal Napoleta brick-oven pizzas in a casual atmosphere. Proprietor Anthony Valinoti, a native of Brooklyn, learned this art from master chefs in Naples. He crafts food with “love, passion, dedication and enthusiasm.”

Image courtesy of DeLuca’s Pizzeria

Valinoti prepares the dough by hand daily and uses the finest natural ingredients, including crushed tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and parmigiana, exceptional meats and farm-grown basil, arugula and portobello and shiitake mushrooms. Try “Franky’s Classic Margherita Pie” named in honor of former Oaklawn track announcer Frank Mirahmadi.

Valinoti has become a beloved member of the culinary colony in both Hot Springs and nearby Little Rock, Ark. in the short period of time since DeLuca’s opened in 2014. In a review, Rock City Eats said, “The pizza at DeLuca's Pizzeria Napoletana is fantastic, no doubt, but personality is really the secret ingredient.”

Image courtesy of DeLuca’s Pizzeria

Connoisseurs wishing to walk off the pizza can stroll an easy mile and stop for a drink in the art deco lobby of the Arlington Hotel. Refinery 29 named it one of their 15 favorite hotel bars in the world, and Esquire magazine included it in its list of Best Bars in America.

This opulent space includes a marble staircase, a miniature replica of Oaklawn’s finish line pole and intricate iron lampposts and window detailing. The bar sits on one side of the room, and the bandstand sits on the opposite side. Jungle murals provide the backdrop for each of these areas: on the bar side, animals are alone, and on the bandstand side they are in pairs. The Arlington provides live jazz music Friday and Saturday evenings.

Image courtesy of Arlington Hotel

Writer Will Stephenson described the Arlington like this in the Arkansas Times: “The building aims for a vanished, 1940s standard of glamor. It has always aimed for this standard, and it remains very successful at achieving it. The place isn’t rendered irrelevant just because other standards have emerged or become dominant in the interim.”

Image courtesy of Arlington Hotel

The Arlington and The Ohio Club, the final stop on this itinerary (a few blocks from the hotel), share colorful past patrons. In the 1930s, Hot Springs was a popular hangout for Al Capone, Bugsy Siegel, Frank Costello, Bugs Moran, Lucky Luciano and other infamous mobsters. On multiple occasions, Al Capone rented the Arlington’s fourth floor for his staff and bodyguards. He preferred a room where he could look out the window and watch the activity at The Southern Club, which is now a wax museum. Babe Ruth visited the city nine times — Hot Springs was one of the first spring training sites for Major League Baseball — and he frequented both of these establishments and the racetrack.

Image courtesy of The Ohio Club

Just one year younger than Oaklawn, The Ohio Club is Arkansas’ oldest bar. During prohibition, it turned into a true speakeasy with the name changing to Ohio Cigar Store. It included a casino and sports book until 1967.

The high, tin ceilings endured, along with the expansive mahogany back bar, measuring 15-feet high and 24-feet wide, with three horse heads hand-carved in the top. It traveled from Kentucky on barge, train and horse and buggy to reach home on Central Ave. Upstairs features an intimate space for live music. Mae West and Al Jolson performed here, and today The Ohio Club features live music seven nights a week.

Image courtesy of The Ohio Club

In a review for Arkansas Times, Louis Williams wrote, “There are times that we will visit a place with historical significance just for the experience. I suggest a trip to The Ohio Club for that reason. Walk in, see the pictures, check out the building, hear the stories — but let the food keep you there. Sit and listen to The Ohio Club Players, and see for yourself why the owner Mike Petty was named Hot Springs’ Restaurateur of the Year. Great atmosphere, great service and great food. That’s The Ohio Club.”

Image courtesy of The Ohio Club

Historic downtown Hot Springs has also hosted Tony Bennett, Barbara Streisand, Yoko Ono and four presidents, including native son Bill Clinton. Beat poet Allen Ginsberg once gave a poetry reading in the ballroom of the Arlington.

What stories will be added to the lore from this decade? Join the latest chapter of people making history in Hot Springs.

newsletter sign-up

Stay up-to-date with the best from America's Best Racing!