The Ohio Club, established in 1905 on Central Ave. in Hot Springs, purports to be the oldest bar in the state and to have hosted celebrities, gangsters and presidents. On the walls are framed photos of the place with horse buggies and Model Ts parked outside, newspaper clips about it getting busted for gambling and brief bios of the original owners, John Coffee Williams and his nephew, Sam C. Watt.
That sort of historical marketing is all well and good, but the Ohio Club should be considered on its own merits, which are ample.
First off, and really, this part is unavoidable, is the bar itself. That is to say, once you walk in and let your eyes adjust to the dark, the first thing you'll notice is the massive, 19th century mahogany bar, 15 feet high and 24 feet wide, with an enormous mirror and hand-carved horse heads.
No kidding, even if you never go there to get a drink or grab some food or watch a band, it's worth stepping into the Ohio Club just to check out this beautiful, gigantic piece of art and reflect on how lame everything is nowadays and wonder why it is that America seemingly can't have nice things anymore.
Such is its power that even a giant flat-screen TV, that ubiquitous destroyer of ambiance that someone saw fit to install in the middle of it, doesn't ruin it completely. Other than that, the inside of the place has an ideal bar climate: dark, cool and comfortable.
The menu at the Ohio Club is made up largely of the kinds of fare you'd expect at a bar: deep-fried appetizers, salads, sandwiches and burgers.
But here's the thing: it's all really good, or at least everything our crew tried out was.
Fried pickle slices ($5) seemed off at first. The batter wasn't the usual puffy, voluminous vehicle for grease that covers everything from cheese to jalapenos to Twinkies at restaurants and state fairs the world over. This was different — crunchy, but not too much so, with a nice kick to it that built up the more we ate. Naturally, it came with a side of ranch.
Cheddar cheese bacon fries ($6.50) were beyond plentiful and generally awesome. Sure, it seems like the kind of dish that would be pretty hard to screw up, but it happens more often than it should.
But on to the real star of the meal: The Ohio Burger ($7.50 and worth every penny).
A lot of folks get really worked up about burgers, about whether they should be kept simple, with the standard lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle and cheese or if it's acceptable to gussy them up with stuff like fontina and foie gras and caviar. But often what gets lost in that debate is that nothing matters if the burger itself isn't right. No amount of expensive, exotic accoutrements can compare to a burger that was cooked perfectly on a well-seasoned grill, ideally with a lean-to-fat ratio that favors the good stuff.
The Ohio Burger is the best of both worlds. In addition to the regular fixings, it's got bacon, pepper jack cheese, an onion ring and Gulden's spicy mustard. Each of these ingredients is tasty on its lonesome, but combined, they become something that's much more than the sum of its parts.
Plus, the burger patty was unbelievably flavorful and cooked to perfection, juicy and falling apart with every bite. The bun had obviously come out of the oven very recently, too.
For libations, we had a margarita on the rocks ($7) that was entirely respectable. It wasn't too sweet and had a healthy pour of tequila. While it might seem that a bottle of Miller Lite would be the same no matter where you drank it, it doesn't hurt when that sumbitch is served truly ice cold.
If you find yourself in the Spa City and all that gambling or shopping or walking around in flip-flops has you parched and famished, the Ohio Club is an excellent palliative. The food comes out quick and it's served up late — until midnight most evenings.
The Ohio Club
336 Central Ave.
Besides being visually impressive, the Ohio Club has a good selection of hooch. It's not all encompassing, but you don't have to pick from 37 types of frosted-bottle vodka, either.
11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Mon.-Sat.; 11 a.m. to midnight Sun.
Beer, wine and liquor. All CC accepted. Smoking. 21 and up only. Small number of outdoor dining tables.