Cal-Tex Cuisine Meets Down Home Cordiality

by Kristal Mackey

photography by Chris Sale

Hot Springs is, it seems, in a period of re-invigoration of the local community. Both locals and tourists are increasingly supporting shops, boutiques, markets, and restaurants owned by their fellow Hot Springs residents. Enter the small eatery. Dining out locally offers no shortage of cozy cafés, bistros, and diners. Downtown and Central Avenue alone boast several, some adding coffee shop or bakery to their title. Several are located in area hotels or resorts and many are holding their own surrounded by box stores in shopping centers. So what sets one apart from another? For Cafe 1217, named for its address on Malvern Avenue, the answer is clear – simple food and fresh ingredients with a unique twist.

Cafe 1217 sits, unpretentiously, in a small shopping center on Malvern Avenue sandwiched between Peter’s Paint and a small parking area that it shares with its sister restaurant, Taco Mama. Their recent renovation, the first since they opened, seems to have increased business and, luckily, they only had to close one day during renovation to lay new floors. The cafe is now roomier with one wall having been removed and a door way expanded to the adjoining dining area. Dark teal walls and vintage looking industrial lighting are juxtaposed against the natural light pouring in from the front windows. A handwritten menu, presented on a large chalkboard behind the counter, displays the month’s menu. Some renovations are still remaining the bathrooms still need some attention and sliding doors will be installed to separate the additional dining room for events as needed, but the layout is the same. The quaint “order here” sign still hangs above the a la carte counter, which displays the day’s specials and vegetables. The dessert counter still beckons just as you walk in and is, as always, filled with tasty homemade desserts like tiramisu pie, cobbler, and a variety of tarts and cakes.

The real jewel of the cafe, though, is its menu. I’ve been a fan of Cafe 1217 since 1998, about a year after they opened. Having never been a fan of tomato soup, a co-worker insisted that I try the tomato bisque at this amazing new restaurant. I ordered a small cup and paired it with the Southwestern Cobb Salad. To say I was an instant fan is an understatement. Although I have intentions of trying something new when I order lunch from there, invariably I end up returning to the meal that first enamored me with Cafe 1217. The creaminess of the bisque perfectly mellows the acidity of the tomatoes, allowing a hearty brightness that elevates the soup light years beyond just a basic tomato concoction. The salad, available in half sizes if paired with a cup of soup, is overflowing with flavor. Fresh greens are topped with smooth avocado, pico, cilantro, onion, sliced chicken, and their house dressing. Although the menu changes monthly, these two menu items are among the small base of customer favorites that remain available, along with fish tacos (with a delicious beer batter), tamales, chicken pot pie (served in soup bowl sized mugs), meatloaf, and a handful of other classics. In July, the BLT&A (bacon, lettuce, tomato, and avocado) was such a popular menu item that it, too, will soon be a staple. The obvious ingredients of the sandwich are accompanied by a feta herb spread that is typical of the inventiveness that makes Cafe 1217 a stand-out place.

Julia Child is quoted as saying “People who love to eat are always the best people.” This must be why Cafe 1217’s owner, Diana Bratton, always seems to have a smile on her face. Her happiness gives away her absolute love for what she does and she is eager to share her love of food with others. Bratton’s culinary education began in childhood as the eighth out of nine children born in south Texas to parents who lived through America’s Great Depression. Although growing up in a large family had meager moments, mealtime was important family time and Bratton remembers spending quality time cooking with her mother and siblings. When Bratton enrolled in college, she originally tried her hand at International Business, but couldn’t deny that she preferred the arts. Eventually, she received her culinary degree in Dallas, Texas, graduating at the top of her class and achieving Student of the Year. She has continued her education at the Culinary Institute of America in California. Her deep Texas roots and a love of California’s cuisine have inspired Cafe 1217’s fresh eclectic menu.

Growing up in the kitchen also inspired Bratton to focus on making quality food inhouse and from scratch while using fresh ingredients. The produce at Cafe 1217 is supplied by Arkansas Natural Produce, located in Malvern. This produce comprises the vital ingredients for one of the menu items of which Bratton is most proud-the Purslane Salad, which contains succulent lettuce topped with tomato, avocado, feta, jalapeno, and extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice. Hot Springs bakery Ambrosia supplies the cafe with bread and they press their own tortillas on site.

Bratton also is quick to sing the praises of her sous chef, Yvonne, who is in charge of the a la carte counter and keeps it stocked with some of their classic dishes as well as side dishes like vegetables with cilantro pecan pesto
and broccoli apple salad. The desserts are all made by Richard, who keeps the dessert counter and cookie bar full of all manner of sweet treats, like peanut butter cookies, macaroons, and berry almond puff pastry.

Moving forward, Bratton has plans to begin serving brunch at Cafe 1217. She hints to me that she hopes to start in September, then realizes that she’s saying this in mid-August. She smiles and gives a slight wink before quipping “Wow. Better get moving!” before she disappears back inside her kitchen.

Boasting a unique menu and local ingredients, Cafe 1217 continues to delight long-time customers and draws in new ones daily. And greeting these patrons as they walk in the door is a chalkboard wall, just around the corner from the cookie bar, that has curly cursive writing on it reminding everyone “Don’t forget to be awesome!” After a laid back meal at Cafe 1217, it’s hard to be anything else.