Photos by Jamie Lee

It is Friday at 12:30 p.m. at the Hole in the Wall Cafe in historic downtown Conway. There is a line to the door, and folks are patiently waiting their turn to grab a tray and get their lunch. The smell of fried chicken wafts through the air and the room is buzzing with activity.

 

Over here, men in suits discuss business; over there, women chat over lunch, and throughout, families, college kids, blue-collar workers and elderly gentlemen discussing the weather fill the dining room.

 

“Hi! How are you today?” said one cheerful server; “How is your mom doing?” asked another. “Ya’ll come back!” they all chimed in unison.

 

There is something special about the Hole in the Wall, and it is not just the cooking. A shining gem in a sea of chain restaurants, it is the type of place that makes one want to become a regular. Here, people still enjoy conversation over a home-cooked meal, reminiscent of a time when it was OK to stop and have lunch at a more leisurely pace.

After the lunch rush, Toni Burrows sat down to visit about her business over a few glasses of sweet tea. It is immediately apparent why Burrows’ customers feel the way they do about the cafe, starting with the easygoing and friendly owner. She is a master of customer interaction, from stopping multiple times to check in with customers down to the suggestion box stuffed with cards that actually get read, some making it up onto the wall.

 

“This restaurant has been such a blessing to me, and I have some of the best customers around,” she said.

 

Born and raised in DeValls Bluff, Burrows came to Conway in 1995. Departing a career in interior design, she opened Hole in the Wall Cafe in September 2010 fulfilling her lifelong dream of having a restaurant.

 

“The only food background I have is that my mother and grandmother were excellent cooks,” she said. “I stayed a lot with my grandmother when I was younger. Her name was Doll Elrod, and she taught me how to cook. I would drag a chair around the kitchen and watch her. There were four of us girls, and I was the only one that had a passion for cooking.

 

“My grandmother didn’t use recipes, so I had to make all the recipes when I opened here. That was one of the hardest things for me, but I wanted to make the food consistent — and it is. My grandmother was my inspiration for opening this place.”

 

The name was initially hard to come by and feels a little ill-matched with the cafe’s various cavernous dining spaces. Burrows said it was not always so.

 

“The first building we were in only sat 90 people. I would have people standing around, holding their trays waiting for a place to sit,” she said. “Everyone said I should call it Cooking by Toni, but I didn’t want to name if after myself. I was talking to a friend of mine about a restaurant, and he said, ‘Oh, it’s just a hole-in-the-wall joint.’ I said ‘Bam! That’s perfect. That’s the name.’”

In January 2012, Hole in the Wall moved to its current location on Markham Street inside a historic cotton gin in downtown Conway.

 

“They ginned the last cotton here in this building in 1971. The East Hall addition was built in the ’90s,” she said. “I have customers come in that say their uncle or cousin used the cotton gin. It’s a great piece of history to share with everyone, and I love to hear their stories and memories they share with us.”

 

The atmosphere is not the only thing feeding diners’ nostalgia here as the food regularly inspires comments about being as good or better than people remember from their own growing up.

All of the Hole in the Wall’s fare is homemade, and Burrows has a hand in everything made from scratch in the kitchen. The only thing in a box here is the to-go containers many diners require to take home leftovers.

 

“Everything here is made from my recipes. All the desserts are homemade. Our mashed potatoes are real. Our gravy is made from scratch,” Burrows said. “We buy the eye of round for our chicken-fried steak and process it ourselves. The chicken is fresh. We are the real deal.”

Standouts of the menu start with the trademark fried cornbread, available every day and prepared in a cast iron skillet that encases the sweet bread in a delicious crust. Entrees available every day include customer favorites chicken-fried chicken, chicken-fried steak and chicken parmesan. Daily vegetable side dishes include fried okra, broccoli casserole, turnip greens, macaroni and cheese and green beans.

 

In addition, the cafe offers rotating daily specials ranging from chicken-and-cream sauce served with cabbage (Tuesday) to meatloaf with corn (Friday) among other delectable plates.

hole in the wall

I visited on the fried chicken day and was treated to juicy, flavorful chicken that was seasoned nicely and had a crispy, light breading. I also sampled chicken-fried steak that was tender and moist and covered with a delightful homemade gravy. Seriously, you could serve this gravy on a flip-flop. The chicken parmesan was another super-flavorful choice; Burrows serves it up with a twist that deletes the red sauce in favor of a bed of rice pilaf. The result is a dish that is a little Italian, a little Southern.

 

The portions here make leaving room for dessert a challenge, but one worth taking given the homemade treats available to polish off the meal. The cafe’s signature strawberry shortcake is made with fresh strawberries and a cream cheese center, giving the dessert just the right amount of sweet. Other popular options include coconut cream pie, chocolate four-layer delight and praline pecan pie.

The Hole in the Wall serves up its creations cafeteria-style which in some eateries can feel institutional. Diners here never have that problem due to the quality of the food and the friendly and attentive staff, both of which have to meet the high standards of the owner.

 

“I tell everyone that I hire, ‘At most places, customers are nothing but a body in a seat. Not here. These customers are our living, and they will be treated well,’” Burrows said. “We know their names, their birthdays, and they know all of us. I had flowers sent to me a few days ago from the daughter of one of our regulars. I was worried about not seeing her for a bit, so I called her daughter to check on her, and then I took her some food.

 

“They become like family. You must treat people like you want to be treated. A lot of places say that, but we really take that to heart here.”

 

Open for lunch Tuesday through Friday, the dining room is closed Saturday through Monday because weekends are reserved for events. The main area seats 220, the bar room seats 28, and the East Hall seats 100. While the restaurant is only open for public service four days a week, Burrows said that is enough for a full-time job, especially with off-site catering, which accounts for a large percentage of sales.

“There are more ways to lose money in the restaurant business than there are to make money,” she said. “Between payroll, catering and everything else that comes along with it, you must stay on top of it. With chain restaurants opening left and right around the area, you have to bring something to the table that makes people want to come back to you.”

 

The Hole in the Wall Cafe does not pretend to be something other than what it is: good home cooking, served with a smile. While there is a misconception among many that home cooking is simple, it is not. There is a skill to cooking that elevates everyday ingredients and lets the food shine, and I can personally attest to tasting the effort, care and time given to each dish.

 

In establishing her dream restaurant, Burrows set a high bar from the start. From the cafe’s tagline — “Where It’s all About the Food” — to the lengths the staff goes to to feed people and make them feel like family, she is succeeding.

 

“I’ve just always had a passion for food,” she said. “Times are different now; people don’t cook anymore. It’s all about fast food. What we do here, this type of place, is becoming an art that is soon to become a thing of the past.”

 

Hole in the Wall Cafe

1016 Markham St., Conway

501-205-1325

facebook.com/theholeinthewallcateringandevents

Tuesday through Friday: 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Closed Saturday through Monday

To-go and curbside service are available.

 

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