Matt Mershon with content partner KATV reports:
Airplane food has always had a bad reputation, but one Northeast Arkansas restaurant is challenging that theory. The Parachute Inn serves up southern classics and Americana all on board an old Boeing 737.
If you aren’t looking for it, it’s not easy to find, but once you see it – it’s hard to miss.
Tucked away next to the terminal at the Walnut Ridge Regional Airport, the Parachute Inn is the next best thing to land at the airport since the Beatles did back in 1964.
Doris Gustin, owner of the Parachute Inn, has been serving up everything from crawfish to ribeye inside the hull of a retired Southwest Airlines jet. The interior was outfitted to resemble the old Southwest look – minus the tables.
“We didn’t really know what to expect,” said Debbie Spencer, first time diner from Jonesboro. “But we will be back and we’ll be bringing the grandkids because they will have a ball.”
Spencer and her husband Jerry Spencer say the true draw to the restaurant was the fact it’s housed inside of an airplane – but they say the food isn’t too bad either.
“My steak was very tender – everything was delicious,” commented Spencer.
The restaurant is known locally for its hand-breaded catfish fillets, homemade beans and made from scratch hushpuppies from a secret recipe. Locals say you must stay for the fried pie.
But for the kids and kids at heart, it’s all about the airplane experience. From the overhead compartments all the way down to the cockpit.
“They can put their purses up here, jackets in the winter like they’re really getting on a plane,” said Gustin, referencing the overhead bins.
“The kids get a kick out of playing in the cockpit. You’ll hear, ‘MAYDAY, MAYDAY, we’re going to crash, we’re going to crash,’” joked Gustin. “It’s just hilarious to listen to the kids.”
The plane though didn’t become a part of the Parachute Inn until 2001. Before then, the Parachute Inn was only half the restaurant it is today – the brick and mortar half. Harold Johnson, now president of the Wings of Honor Museum across the street, was the original owner.
“The restaurant was built for us in 1967,” said Johnson. “We operated that for three years and then we gave it up and someone else took over.”
At one time, the Walnut Ridge Regional Airport was home to a smelting operation, taking in old defense carriers and airliners that had seen their better days, stripping down the fuselage and melting the metal. Johnson said that’s where the Boeing 737 came from.
“The lady that operated the restaurant became friends with the fellow that was in charge of the operation here and she said, ‘When are you going to bring me an airplane?’” recalled Johnson.
“He said, ‘Well, what kind do you want?’ and she thought he was just joking, but he wasn’t and he brought her a 737.”
Gustin bought the restaurant back in 2012 in an effort to move nearer to her parents.
“My father’s 90 years old and I think he wanted me to help take care of him and get a little closer to him and that’s a blessing,” said Gustin.
Over the years, people from all over the country and the world have descended upon Walnut Ridge to take part in one of Arkansas’s most unique eateries. Many sign their names and hometowns on the plane’s interior to commemorate a one-of-a-kind journey.
“They enjoy coming and looking for their name and say, ‘I was here, I was here,’” said Gustin.
The Parachute Inn is open Tuesday through Thursday for lunch only, and Fridays and Saturdays for lunch and dinner. Friday nights feature their fried catfish and Saturdays feature a seafood buffet.
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