Table Matters: Say it loud and proud — ‘Honky tonk!’

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 324 views 

FORT SMITH — Shannon Gilliaum sold his successful roofing business to open what he hopes will be a successful bar and live music venue, the Longhorn Saloon, at 6400 U.S. 71.

He’s retrofitting a building that was previously a Massey-Ferguson tractor dealership; a building permit issued by the city estimates those costs to be around $800,000.

Even his architect realized the serious look in Gilliaum’s eye at the outset of the venture.

“He knew exactly what he wanted,” said Shannon Reith, designer at Guest Reddick Architects.

What Gilliaum wanted was a bar big enough to rival that of Billy Bob’s of Texas in Fort Worth, billed as the “world’s largest honky tonk.”

“It’s been my dream for almost 17 years,” he said.

Details of that dream include a 920-foot stage for local bands and national touring country acts.

“That’s bigger than the house where I first lived,” he exclaimed.

Gilliaum worked at the Red Roper, back when it was located on Highway 45 on the outskirts of town. He also worked at the now-famous Electric Cowboy country and dance nightclub. His father-in-law ran the now-closed Sundowner, another tonk of its time.

This saloon of his, “It’ll have everything — live music, dancin’ and drinkin’,” he said. It’ll have 16,000 square feet under roof with capacity for up to 850 boot-stompin’, belt buckle-wearing country music lovers. They’ll drink from two bars, at least one of which will be 40 feet — long enough to accommodate five bartenders.

The bar could be open as soon as October. The last call will be whenever Gilliaum says it is.

AquaFire replacing 1936 Club on Dickson Street
As 1936 Club owner Peter Steinhart was whooping it up with friends last Saturday night (Aug. 11), celebrating his retirement from the restaurant business, the eatery’s new manager and chef, Ryan McGuffin, was on his way back from Ohio with a load of restaurant equipment.

McGuffin, once owner of Blackboard’s Cafe in Bella Vista and Basil’s in Rogers, is turning the neon-noted 1936 Club into his own place, AquaFire, with his girlfriend Sherri Simpkins as owner.

The German-bred Steinhart was all but melancholy while serving a packed crowd at the restaurant at 300 W. Dickson Saturday. After 41 years in the business — 19 of them at the 1936 — he seemed eager to let someone else take the long nights standing on rubber legs in the kitchen. When asked what he planned to do after retirement, he stole a quote from an older gentleman who worked at restaurant: “A whole lot of nothing, and even that won’t start ‘till noon.”

And that’s that.

Less than an hour into his lease on Monday morning, McGuffin had a crew working on the outside and interior of the place, painting, cleaning and giving it a new look. Steinhart maintains ownership of the building. The name AquaFire, McGuffin said, marries the two elements needed to cook: Fire and water.

McGuffin left the area after selling Blackboard and Basil’s about seven years ago, and then came back to look for restaurant opportunities about a year ago.

“I found the perfect place and the perfect girlfriend and partner,” McGuffin said of Simpkins. The two were working elbow-to-elbow on Dickson Street Monday, scratching the 1936 and Uber Burger decals off the storefronts. While Steinhart always maintained the 1936 on the east end of the building, the west side took on several transformations, from the D-Lux (probably the most popular) to Early Berlin, Bistro V and lastly, Uber Burger.

McGuffin met Simpkins while he was helping out at the Fayetteville Senior Activity and Wellness Center (imagine those Meals on Wheels), where Simpkins was director for five years. She’ll work the front of the house when AquaFire opens to the public Aug. 22.

Of McGuffin’s seven years away, he spent five of those operating his own eatery, Chef Gerald’s, in swanky Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. He also headed up the kitchen at the Boyne Mountain Resort in Michigan. While looking for a place to open a restaurant in Northwest Arkansas, he was back at Basil’s, cooking and training the current chef, Kevin Roberts.

At AquaFire, McGufin will feature what he calls “global cuisine” — global for “its flavors and cooking techniques pulled from around the world.” Just as Steinhart did with the 1936, McGuffin said he will tailor the menu to what’s in season and available from local growers.

The menu for AquaFire is taped to the window (you may need a bib just for viewing). The restaurant will be open for lunch and dinner five days a week.

Mary Maestri’s up out of the ashes
After Mary Maestri’s was closed by the state for delinquent sales tax payments in 2010 and then burned down during a training drill for some local firemen, the Italian eatery is rising again under the name Mary Maestri’s Italiano Grillroom. But this time, it’ll be located on the east side of town, far from its 87-year landmark spot in Tontitown.

Construction is ongoing at the former location of the Front Porch Family Diner, 669 E. Robinson Ave., south of the Springdale airport. Records with the City of Springdale show Daniel Maestri is spending roughly $80,000 to remodel the existing space and add a patio.

A note on the website marymaestris.com says: “We will open the new restaurant sometime in late June or early July. It is located on hiway (sic) 412 E. in Springdale. Our formal opening date and menu will be coming soon.” The site has old photos of the Maestri clan when the business was young and a historical narrative about how it was started.