Hello, Hot Springs: My First Trip to This Unique Racing Destination

Events / Travel
A Brie-LT with sweet and spicy bacon, tomato jam, and spicy mayo layered with brie on a pistolette bun coupled with a flight of four 4 oz. beers was a great start to my time in Hot Springs. (Jennifer Kelly photos)

Since my first day of live racing at age 12, I have had “visit every racetrack in America” on my bucket list, doing my best to check another track off my list each year. As a fan of champion sprinter Whitmore, I thought Oaklawn Park’s recent Whitmore Day was a great excuse to take a road trip to Hot Springs, Ark. to experience another of our country’s historic racetracks, and, at the same time, try some of the area’s best restaurants.

From its past as a destination for gamblers and gangsters to its present as a vacation spot for both fans and families, Hot Springs offers both food and fun for everyone.

Home Away from Home

Arlington Hotel (Jennifer Kelly photo)

For this weekend away, I chose the historic Arlington Hotel located on Central Avenue, just two miles from Oaklawn. Built in 1924, the current Arlington is the third version of the hotel, built for vacationers flocking to Hot Springs’s vibrant bathhouses and gambling establishments of the early 20th Century. The 21st Century Arlington sports a Starbucks and a live music space but still maintains the architectural elements of the Roaring Twenties. My room had a lovely view of Central Avenue with the backdrop of the Ozarks in the distance. Plus, the hotel is within walking distance of a number of great eateries and other attractions.

Walking down Central Avenue reminded me of trips to Gatlinburg, Tenn. Both have the same vibe, built for vacationers with old-world charm in mind. The avenue is lined with clothing boutiques, local restaurants, and destinations like the Gangster Museum and Josephine Tussaud’s Wax Museum. Across the Avenue sat the Quapaw Bathhouse, where you can go for a soak and a spa treatment, and the Fordyce Bathhouse, which has been remade into a museum of the bathhouses that have attracted visitors to Hot Springs for decades.

While I was exploring, I stopped into Kilwin’s to grab some homemade marshmallows, marveling at the wide selection of both chocolates – including slabs of fudge – and deep tubs of ice cream, a favorite stop for families who were taking in the sights along the avenue. I also noted the Ohio Club, the area’s oldest bar that was once a speakeasy and a hangout for gangsters and now is a restaurant and live music venue. Across the street from there lies the Superior Bathhouse Brewery, the only brewery in a national park and the only brewery in the world that uses thermal spring water in its beer. I put both on my list for dinner since they were walking distance from the Arlington.

Now starving from my drive in and my walk down the avenue, I decided it was time to start one of my favorite parts of any vacation: the eating part.

Room with a view. (Jennifer Kelly photo)

All of the Good Eats

The Best Salad Ever. (Jennifer Kelly photo)

The day I arrived in Hot Springs happened to be St. Patrick’s Day, which meant that the Ohio Bar was packed with revelers. I headed to the Superior Bathhouse for dinner instead, ready for some good food and a beer. With a menu that featured beer flights for sampling the Superior’s homebrews and some unique culinary offerings, this choice turned out to be a fortuitous one.

Despite the busy evening, I was seated quickly, my view the hustle and bustle of Central Avenue. I started the meal with what I will forever call the Best Salad Ever¸ also known as the Sweet Potato Salad. This entrée-sized bowl featured roasted sweet potatoes, chunks of bacon, cranraisins, and pickled red onions on a bed of spinach with a warm bacon dressing. As someone who makes and eats bacon as often as I can, this was the perfect way to start the meal. I followed that with a Brie-LT, a sandwich with sweet and spicy bacon, tomato jam, and spicy mayo layered with brie on a pistolette bun. Coupled with a flight of four 4 oz. beers, this was a great start to my time in Hot Springs.

The next evening, with the St. Patrick’s Day crowd dispersed, I ventured to the Ohio Club for dinner. With live music going upstairs, I sat at the bar and scanned their menu, which included burgers and sandwiches, like a Reuben and the Southwest Grilled Chicken sandwich. After a long day at Oaklawn, I enjoyed a sweet tea, this Southern girl’s favorite beverage, and that grilled chicken sandwich. Between the heaping portion of sandwich and steak fries, I was stuffed and ready to return to the Arlington to relax.

These two evening meals provided me with more than enough energy for my days at Oaklawn, both filled with good times and great races. While the sights of Central Avenue and Hot Springs to that point had been fantastic, the 118-year-old racetrack was a much-anticipated destination for this weekend trip.

Let the racing begin! (Jennifer Kelly photo)

Fast Horses, Fun Times

Oaklawn Park, now known as Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort, has been a part of Hot Springs since its opening in 1904. Now owned by the Cella family, the track is the remaining gambling venue in a town that was once known for its illegal casinos as it was for its thermal baths.

The casino and hotel portion of Oaklawn are gorgeous, modern facilities that complement the historic racetrack connected to it, where names like American Pharoah and Count Fleet have won races on their way to Triple Crown glory. I was thrilled to add this to my list of racetracks.

An immense fried shrimp platter. (Jennifer Kelly photo)

Inside the track are several restaurants and other food services, including the Finish Line restaurant. Located on the first level, I decided to grab lunch there between morning workouts and first post.

The fried shrimp platter caught my eye as I had heard that Oaklawn served some great seafood despite being hours away from the ocean. The platter was more than enough food for one person and likely could have fed two, with its large fried shrimp, hushpuppies, and healthy serving of fries.

Along those same lines, I also grabbed sushi at the Cove the next day. Seeking a change from burgers and sandwiches, I tried the spicy California roll, which was delicious. I was delighted by the nice-sized roll drizzled with spicy mayonnaise. Tightly rolled and a perfect balance of crab and vegetables, this choice was a pleasant surprise. Most racetracks have food choices similar to that of your trips to a football or baseball game, so sushi was a great reprieve from the heavier choices of early meals.

Oaklawn itself is a pleasure to spend a day at, easy to navigate and welcoming to racing fans.

The paddock is inside, allowing fans to observe the horses as they walk the ring and are saddled while also shielded from the day’s weather. On both sides of the paddock and tunnel onto the track are the track’s apron with concrete bleachers that double as steps up to the grandstand. Practically any spot on the apron allows fans a view of the action on the track.

I am glad I was able to make the trip out for the weekend’s special events and look forward to returning to the area for another day at the races Oaklawn style.

Sushi was a nice, lighter option. (Jennifer Kelly photo)

Thank You, Hot Springs

Hot Springs,and Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort are both great choices for a weekend away at the races. The town’s unique architecture gives it an old-world feel as you walk down Central Avenue looking at the bathhouses that dot the landscape and enjoy the thermal waters that have drawn people to the area for more than a century. Its diverse selection of eateries also affords visitors the chance to fuel up before and after a trip to Oaklawn, where they can enjoy a day at the races and then a turn at their favorite game of chance. It’s a win-win proposition for everyone.

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