Saturday morning boasted a beautiful blue sky, white puffy clouds and the warm rays of the Arkansas summer sun…and pollen….lots and lots of pollen. I downed my daily allergy medication and roused the rest of my travel team to hit the road for the latest in our series of hometown road trips. With travel being, well, complicated during the COVID 19 pandemic, we’ve taken the opportunity to focus on road trips that are a little closer to home and what we have found has been really remarkable. This trip would prove to be no different.
Finally hittin’ the road…
From our hometown of Rogers, Arkansas, there are multiple ways to find your way to Ozark, Missouri- most of them include a quick hop onto Interstate 44, but we opted for a more scenic path east on US HWY 412 and north on US HWY 65. After a brief panic over a glitch with Google Maps, we chose to engage the onboard navigation system of the Shelby and continued on our merry way.
Nestled in the foothills of the Ozark mountains, smack dab between the country music capital of the midwest, Branson, and the rolling metropolis of Springfield, sits a quiet, unassuming small town- Ozark, Missouri. Ozark may be on the smaller side of mid-size towns, weighing in at just over 20,000 in population, but the town is hard at work creating a space that has everything you could want in a location- home-town-country feel with all the amenities you could dream up- Ozark offers all of it.
Places to Eat- Market House Cafe
We arrived in town for a late lunch and made our way to the downtown square for our first stop, the Market House Cafe. This beautifully restored downtown shoppe has the feel of old fashioned soda shoppes and idyllic times. Every detail of this little cafe, from the exposed antique tile ceilings to the hand-milled wood floors has been considered and that attention to detail extends to the fresh, homemade food the Market House serves. We were greeted warmly by the owner, Barbara and our server, Laura.
Before Barbara finished going over the appetizers for the day, I knew my resolution to eat small bites was right out the window. We chose the house specialty, Lasagna Soup and what the menu touts as the “Best Ever Grilled Cheese” to start our culinary adventure.
The Lasagna Soup was like eating a lasagna- with a spoon…full of flavor and richness, but light enough to be considered an appetizer.
The “Best Ever Grilled Cheese” definitely lived up to its name! Handmade bread and fresh deli sliced swiss and american cheese and topped with avocado, crispy bacon and a house made ranch dip that is to die for, Intern Lizzy and our driver, Charlie- both very picky eaters- were not sure about engaging in something with so many elements. Both were blown away by this sandwich. Truthfully, everything that Barbara had on her menu lends credence to her former profession as a nurse. Every item was meticulously prepared, homemade and fresh, and every flavor profile is perfectly balanced. There was love, care and passion in her food- and it came through with each and every bite.
We continued our meal with a turkey and provolone sandwich on homemade bread, the Ozark special chicken fingers- which were the crispiest and most deliciously breaded chicken fingers I have ever tasted my new favorite ranch dip notwithstanding, and for our driver, a plain and dry cheeseburger. Charlie’s philosophy on reviewing restaurants is to start with the cheeseburger, plain…It’s a simple item, but very easy to mess up. If a restaurant can get that right then everything else will fall in line. He was not disappointed with this burger which needed none of the Market House’s signature handmade sauces to round out. When choosing your side, skip the traditional fries and opt for the potato salad, I could have eaten a vat of it- you won’t be sorry!
Speaking with Barbara about the renovation and launch of the Market House fascinated me. It took nearly three years of renovation to rehab the building that was nearly dilapidated when she bought the building. Working alongside Amish craftsmen, she literally poured blood, sweat and tears to rebuild the space, finally finishing out the cafe downstairs and two beautiful lofts upstairs that she rents out via air bnb. The rooms were so inviting and I was so full, I nearly dropped a reservation right there to take a nap, but alas, honeymooners were on their way to check in to the beautiful space.
Roaming the Town of Ozark
With a few hours to kill until Cruisin the Square, we spent the afternoon checking out the multitude of cool shops on the square- the boutique scene is booming in Ozark- as well as a couple of the antique shops in the surrounding area. We made our way just down the road to Finley River Park and spent some quiet moments relaxing by the river. Finley River is definitely where the locals go to relax on a lazy Saturday afternoon. Several folks were enjoying kayaking, tubing, fishing and just splashing in the water. Part of the river has been carved off as a stream conservation area by the University of Missouri and seeing the wildlife that sprung up in and around the protected area was interesting. The park itself is well kept and was the perfect location to grab a quick nap and sleep off the food coma we were suffering from.
The Main Event- Cruisin’ The Square
We pulled up to Cruisin’ the Square a little early to make sure we were parked out of the way of the car show and were greeted by a bevy of classic beauties already lined up around the square. A not-so-quick check in with the promotional chairs of the event, Patty Quessenberry and Brad Jackson yielded an in depth history of the downtown revitalization project. Every interaction we had was woven with a common thread, pride in their town and a passion to see it restored and revitalized. The passion the members of the Historic River District Council have for their town is second to none…they haven’t just opened businesses here on the square and in the district, they have moved their residences here- revitalizing the district one building at a time as they go.
The car show itself was a huge hit with over 200 cars participating and several hundred folks in attendance. We saw some amazing classic (and not so classic) cars and trucks and got to talk to loads of car enthusiasts about their cars. Our Shelby, unofficially named “Caroline” by our staff, got a ton of attention and Charlie spent the evening showing her off to all our new fans. “Ole Jim” took a few moments to tell us where the best place to let Caroline “stretch her legs” was, he was adamant that we needed to take her up the road a bit and “let her loose.”
Fine Dining at The Finley
As the evening began to wane, we headed just off the square to The Finley, a fine dining restaurant located in a beautifully renovated church building. Just as a quick note, The Finley does require reservations in their dining area, so make sure to plan ahead before heading out to dinner.
It was the perfect evening to dine outside, so we chose the lovely garden courtyard for our dining experience. The Finley offered us the perfect ending to our Ozark adventure- supremely executed fine dining from start to finish. Still painfully full from our lunch, I ordered what I thought would be a simple summer vegetable risotto and Charlie ordered a filet. Our intern, Lizzy, struggled at The Finley as her palette is the least sophisticated of the team’s and the food at The Finley is definitely created for a more sophisticated eater. She finally settled on the Chicken Caprese on a bed of summer vegetable risotto.
Our server, Eric, had promised a fork tender steak and he was not wrong. The steak was perfectly cooked and served on a bed of mashed potatoes with roasted asparagus.
The summer vegetable risotto was a lot more complex than I had bargained, but I was pleasantly surprised. The Chicken Caprese was also well executed. One thing to note with all the dishes that we tried at The Finley is the complexity of the dishes. Each item on the menu has a unique flavor profile created by an assortment of different seasonings, ingredients and methods of preparation and they aren’t really for the faint of heart. If you are looking for a bland or average flavor profile, the Finley isn’t your huckleberry…for this reason, it definitely wasn’t one of our intern’s favorite places to eat.
We ended our meal with a slice of the carrot cake even though I wasn’t sure where I could possibly put it…and I was so glad we did. It was so good, we nearly forgot to take a picture before the last bite was consumed! The Finley gets their fresh daily, homemade desserts from Miss Bonnie down the road a bit in Nixa, who has apparently mastered the art of the perfect carrot cake. It was rich, delicately spiced- with just the perfect amount of cinnamon and nutmeg- and topped with a cream cheese frosting that melted in your mouth.
Once we had eaten our fill, we ventured downstairs to check out The Finley’s Speak Easy. This intimate space boasts cozy seating for several groups, a beautiful bar with a master bartender, a meeting space for private groups that boasts a table from the 1904 World’s Fair and, in true Speak Easy style, a secret room for guests of the private club.
Much like the hidden room, Ozark felt like a well kept secret that was definitely worth the trip. I felt honored to finally be let into the club and now you are too!