PETIT JEAN STATE PARK -- Many a time have we hiked the Cedar Falls Trail at Petit Jean State Park and then gorged ourselves at Mather Lodge Restaurant.
It's a fine setup. The out-and-back trail practically begins and ends at the restaurant's back door, making it perfect for the hungry hiker.
There was no trekking on a pair of recent trips, though. One was a stop for lunch with my wife, Lori, and the second was a solo dinner visit. Both provided chances to admire the gorgeous views of Cedar Creek Canyon's autumn colors through the large windows of the restaurant's woodsy, Adirondack-style dining room, though the meals were hit and miss.
At lunch, Lori couldn't pass up an appetizer of Dips ($6.99) -- nachos with homemade cheese dip and salsa -- while I opted for the Onion Battered Green Beans ($7.99), which I'd been craving since discovering them on a post-hike lunch here in October.
The salsa was slightly sweet and not terribly chunky, but it had a pleasant, smoky kick that seemed to show up at the end of each bite and kept me scooping for more. All it needed was a little cilantro.
And all the cheese dip needed was flavor.
"It's OK, for orange cheese dip," Lori said at first, but it was soon apparent she wasn't going to uncover any sort of spice or taste among the brightly colored goo and she just gave up. My sample confirmed the blandness. The chips, though, were fine, not too greasy and firm enough to handle the heft of both dips.
The green beans lived up to my memory of the earlier visit's revelation.
Lightly battered and fried, they were crisp and tasty, with just the right amount of salt. Still, Lori wasn't convinced the flavor of the beans wasn't being overpowered by the batter.
"Nonsense," I said, dipping yet another lanky bean into the spicy ranch that came on the side.
They were easily the high point of lunch.
There are four items under Specialties on the menu at the Mather Lodge Restaurant, including Chicken Fettuccine Alfredo ($11.99; $9.99 sans chicken); Pasta Prima Vera ($9.99); Fajita Wrap ($9.99; $7.99 veggie only) and Hot Roast Beef, ($9.99). I ordered the latter, which is served with beef gravy on bread, open faced, and includes a side of mashed potatoes. For good measure, I added a trip to the salad bar ($2.99), where the options were limited but fresh.
Lori, who also visited the salad bar, went with the Chicken Bacon Ranch ($10.99), a grilled chicken breast topped with pepper jack cheese, Petit Jean bacon (natch) and peppercorn ranch on a toasted Brioche bun; she ordered it with fries (chips are another option). It was one of several sandwiches on the menu, including a BLT ($8.99), French Dip ($9.99), a Patty Melt ($8.99) and various burgers.
My serving of roast looked a little on the puny side, but even more distressing was that it was plopped atop three thin slices of burnt toast. Even under a pile of gravy-slathered meat, you can't hide the acrid taste of blackened white bread. I probably should have sent it back.
The roast, ropy and not especially seasoned, was like chewing leather shoestrings. After a few bites, I covered it with ketchup and a dusting of pepper, mixed it all together with the potatoes and proceeded glumly.
Lori's sandwich quickly soaked through the flimsy bottom bun, so she resorted to using a knife and a fork. The chicken was overly grilled in a few spots and woefully under seasoned. The best part were the bites of cheese-covered Petit Jean bacon that we both picked at from her plate.
The restaurant offers seven pizzas, which probably come in handy for guests staying at the lodge or nearby cabins who want a snack in their rooms.
We ordered a 7-inch Mount Magazine Meat Lover ($8.99 for the 7-inch, $23.99 for the 16-inch) while the pizza's namesake loomed on the horizon. The meat lover -- Italian-spiced tomato sauce, creamy mozzarella, Italian sausage, Canadian bacon, pork, beef and sliced pepperoni -- was a serviceable enough pizza when reheated for lunch the next day (I'm actually eating it as I write this). We shared a piece when it was brought in its to-go box to our table at the end of lunch and found that it was definitely meaty, though the mozzarella was more dry than "creamy."
An early supper a few days later was better.
After the delightful drive up Petit Jean Mountain on my own this time (and, just like on the earlier visit, I took time to enjoy the vista at Stout's Point a few miles from the lodge off Petit Jean Mountain Road), I reluctantly passed on the green beans as an appetizer and ordered the Hot Water Cornbread ($5.99) -- four medallions of crispy, perfectly fried meal that were almost as good as the beans and were perfect to munch on with the small salad I built at the salad bar (as with lunch, the salad was an extra $2.99).
There are 12 entree offerings, including Hamburger Steak ($13.99), Chicken Fried Steak ($13.99), Catfish Fillets ($15.99) and, interestingly, Chicken Livers ($12.99). I'd been leaning toward the Ribeye ($23.99) for my main course, but pivoted to the boneless, hand cut Pork Chops ($12.99) at the last minute. They come grilled or fried, and I'll give you two seconds to guess how I requested mine.
The chops, served with mashed potatoes and a little bowl of peas and carrots, were nicely fried, with a peppery batter that clung to the juicy white meat. I also had a choice of white or brown gravy and I chose the latter, which came on the side and which I didn't even use on the pork chops, though I was happy that a spoonful coated the potatoes.
As at lunch, the potatoes were average. The peas and carrots were like something you'd find in a hospital cafeteria.
While making my salad, I eyed the banana pudding that came with the salad bar. After polishing off most of my supper plate, I scooped up a good-size helping of pudding and enjoyed its creamy sweetness as the pink and lavender and orange of the partially clouded sunset finally faded away and darkness covered the valley below.
Service was attentive and friendly on each visit. A breakfast menu, with a Short Stack ($5.99, $7.99), French Toast ($5.99, $7.99) and a Toaster Sandwich ($4.99) among the offerings, is also available.
Weekend on 12/07/2017
Mather Lodge Restaurant
Address: 1285 Petit Jean Mountain Road, Morrilton
Hours: Dec. 1-Dec. 31, Sunday-Thursday, 8 a.m.-6 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 8 a.m.-8 p.m.; Jan. 1, Feb. 28, Sunday-Thursday, 8 a.m.-6 p.m.; Friday, Saturday, 8 a.m.-8 p.m.; March 1-Nov. 30, Sunday-Saturday, 7 a.m.-8 p.m.
Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D
Alcoholic beverages: No
Wheelchair accessible: Yes