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Historic Arkansas Restaurants Coy’s and AQ Chicken House Make a ComebackLock Icon

8 min read

The planned revivals of two iconic Arkansas restaurants — Coy’s Steakhouse in Hot Springs and AQ Chicken House in Springdale — will seek to recreate the kind of magic that attracted diners like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, at least three U.S. presidents and thousands of hungry Arkansans.

The Hotel Hot Springs, owned by Little Rock businessman Keith Holland, announced on Sept. 27 that it was reviving Coy’s Steakhouse (or “Steak House,” as its earliest incarnations spelled it), destroyed by fire in 2009. The hotel also said it planned to reopen a popular Little Rock coffeehouse and restaurant, Satellite Cafe.

And two weeks later, Catalyst Capital, an investment company owned by the Lundstrum family of Springdale, announced it was bringing back AQ Chicken House, which closed March 18.

The serendipitous announcements have been hailed by Arkansans who have fond memories of the two longtime restaurants: Coy’s opened in 1945 and AQ in 1947. Coy’s was inducted into the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame in 2022 in the Gone but Not Forgotten category, and AQ has been a Food Hall of Fame finalist three times.

 

Asked about the significance of these twin announcements, Kat Robinson, an Arkansas author and food historian who was first to report that Coy’s planned a comeback, said: “There’s a great deal of nostalgia in the culinary marketplace right now. People are realizing that this is a great opportunity to reach back to their roots.

“I think the pandemic played a great deal in that, when we were dealing with a time when we were losing restaurants because there was not a good model to keep them going without having customers in their dining rooms. Lots of folks wanted to have those experiences and couldn’t. And I think in many ways that brought back this desire to go back and revisit those spaces.”

That said, the people reviving Coy’s and AQ know that time machines don’t exist and are planning restaurants that they hope will deliver the best of the two legendary mid-20th century brands while appealing to 21st century tastes.

Coy’s 2.0

Holland, with business partner Bob Bomar, bought the 14-story, 200-room Hotel Hot Springs at 305 Malvern Ave. in April. He cited its downtown location as a prime attraction and the fact that it’s connected to the Hot Springs Convention Center/Bank OZK Arena.

Born and raised in Little Rock, Holland started a direct marketing company in the 1980s, Commercial Mail Service. In 1993, the company expanded to Miami, and Holland sold it in 2002.

He started investing in commercial real estate in the late 1980s, including in a hotel in Puerto Rico. “That is how I got interested in hotels,” he said, “but I’ve done retail, office, warehouse, industrial, a little bit of everything.”

After buying the Hotel Hot Springs, Holland and Bomar began discussing its future development. The restaurant inside the hotel, Inside Track, is a sports bar, “and as sports bars go, it’s fine, but we wanted something more upscale,” Holland said. “And I jokingly said, ‘Well, we could always bring Coy’s back.’ And he said, ‘Well, I know Tracy.’”

That was Tracy Manning Brown, whose father, Jim Manning, had bought Coy’s in 1972 along with a group of other investors. Brown and her son, Clay Caffey, had launched Coy’s Southern Eats in 2017, selling steak seasoning, Coy’s famous house salad dressing mix and other seasonings associated with the restaurant.

Holland and Bomar met with Brown “and over the course of several months, we came to an agreement on it.” The partners bought the rights to the Coy’s name and recipes from Coy’s Southern Eats.

Holland, like so many, has warm memories of both the original Coy’s in Hot Springs and the Little Rock Coy’s, which opened in 1976. For a time, there was also a North Little Rock location. He enjoyed the steak, of course, but, again like so many, he remembers the warm saltine crackers with Coy’s house dressing that served as an appetizer at the restaurant. “My best memories are of the one in Little Rock, because by that time I was a little bit older and that’s where I would take dates,” he said. “It was the perfect date place.”

 

The new Coy’s will occupy the Inside Track location, seating a little fewer than 150 with 50 more on the adjacent patio. Keet O’Gary Construction of North Little Rock is managing the Coy’s project, as well as the new Satellite Cafe, with interior design by LaHarpe’s of Little Rock and local independent designer Amber Manney.

The revived Coy’s will have a pared-down menu but will continue to offer dry-aged beef and some of the signature dishes like the TnT (tenderloin and lobster tail), chateaubriand and some seafood.

Holland is aiming at opening the new Coys on Feb. 14, 2024.

“We’re calling it Coy’s 2.0, a re-envisioning of it but trying to maintain the foundation,” Holland said.

Reaction to the announcement of the new Coy’s has been “amazing,” he said. “The feedback we’re getting has been phenomenal. We’re going to have a big job to pull off to make everybody happy.”

His fondest hope for Coy’s 2.0, Holland said, is “that it will bring back some of that nostalgia and be the go-to steakhouse generation for really a new generation.”

‘To Me, It’s a Big Deal’

Tom Lundstrum, now 60, said the idea of buying AQ Chicken House first occurred to him when he was in his 30s. Growing up just four blocks from the restaurant, “I thought it would be cool and fun to own,” he said. “It just seemed like a really neat business and an integral part of Springdale’s culture.”

But the family first entered discussions with AQ owner Dick Bradley in the spring of 2021 about buying the restaurant, Lundstrum said, becoming serious about reviving it this fall after Bradley decided to sell the property at 1207 N. Thompson St. and close the restaurant. Catalyst Capital bought the rights to the AQ Chicken House name and recipes from Bradley for what Lundstrum described as an “extremely fair” price.

 

Tom Lundstrum: “I have an affinity for what I call iconic local businesses.” His family’s Catalyst Capital hopes to open the new AQ Chicken House in Springdale sometime in 2025.
Tom Lundstrum: “I have an affinity for what I call iconic local businesses.” His family’s Catalyst Capital hopes to open the new AQ Chicken House in Springdale sometime in 2025. (Michael Woods)

 

Catalyst Capital consists of Lundstrum and his wife, state Rep. Robin Lundstrum, their daughter, Gracie Lively, and Gracie’s husband, Jacob Lively, who is CEO. The company invests in a number of enterprises in northwest Arkansas, including boutique fitness franchises and now AQ.

 

“I have an affinity for what I call iconic local businesses,” Lundstrum said. He and business partner Brian Moore bought and restored the Apollo movie theater at 308 W. Emma St. in downtown Springdale, which originally opened in 1949, recasting it as an event center, The Apollo on Emma.

As for AQ Chicken House, it was one of only four restaurants that had opened on U.S. 71 in northwest Arkansas back when it was a two-lane highway and that had survived into this year, Lundstrum noted. The others were Fred’s Hickory Inn in Bentonville, which recently sold and changed names, Herman’s Ribhouse in Fayetteville and Neal’s Cafe in Springdale.

“To me, it’s a big deal,” he said of the restaurant. “I had my bachelor party at AQ. There are things as you grow up that you have an attachment to. And I just could not stand to see it closed. You don’t take something that’s 76 years old and just shut it down and forget it.”

The new AQ — the old structure has been demolished — will most likely be located on 23 acres the family owns near a Walmart Supercenter just off Interstate 49 at the Elm Springs Road exit.

As at Coy’s, the menu at the new AQ will be smaller. “We’re not going to try to be all things to all people,” Lundstrum said. “We’re going to be the best chicken house in Arkansas — fried chicken.”

Sure to be featured, however, will be Chicken Over the Coals. “We’ve asked hundreds of people since it was announced that we were doing this, and Chicken Over the Coals wins by a mile.”

The family met for the first time last week to discuss their vision for AQ and haven’t yet chosen an architect or contractor for the project. “Our best intention is to make it a full-service, sit-down restaurant,” Lundstrum said. “The consultant described it to us yesterday, after he heard us talking, he said, ‘Your vision is for the restaurant to be analog and not digital.’ I said, ‘Absolutely.’”

The family hopes the new AQ will be open in 2025. “We are absolutely at the imagination phase right now,” he said. They do know they want it to be family-friendly. “That’s one thing we’re putting a lot of intention into, is how do you blend what AQ has been for 76 years with what it can be for the next 76 years.”

‘A Special Place’

Bill Rogers, the president of the Springdale Chamber of Commerce, is thrilled that both Coy’s and AQ Chicken House will return. He grew up in Monticello but came to northwest Arkansas for college and never left.

Coy’s was a favorite when he visited Hot Springs and “you didn’t live in northwest Arkansas and not eat at AQ Chicken,” he said. His favorite dish? “It’s hard to pass up pan-fried chicken,” he said. “I’m a Southern boy and I like fried chicken.”

 

He noted that the restaurant also served as an important meeting place for visiting political dignitaries and others. “It’s not just the food,” Rogers said. “It held a special place in a lot of people’s lives.”

It will take both savvy restaurant management and customer support to ensure that both Coy’s and AQ Chicken succeed. “Customers who want the nostalgia, they have to come back and support it,” said Robinson, the food historian. “The onus is on the restaurant ownership and management to make sure that the nostalgia is there to keep it going.”

And Rogers is also realistic about the revival of these two Arkansas institutions. “Neither one of them are going to be the same. I really miss Coy’s on the hill. You pulled up. They parked your car. The decorations. And AQ won’t be the same. But if they can both capture the best of what we remember, then we’ll all be better for it.”

Arkansas Restaurant Legends: Of Presidents & Other Celebrities

 

Coy and Mildred “Mickey” Theobalt opened Coy’s in Hot Springs in 1945.
Coy and Mildred “Mickey” Theobalt opened Coy’s in Hot Springs in 1945. (Kat Robinson)

 

Through their decades of existence, Coy’s Steakhouse in Hot Springs and AQ Chicken House in Springdale attracted their fair share of political notables and celebrities.

Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Phyllis Diller and Ronald Reagan, when he was governor of California, were said to have eaten at Coy’s.

 

Roy Ritter opened AQ Chicken House in Springdale in 1947.
Roy Ritter opened AQ Chicken House in Springdale in 1947. (Catalyst Capital)

 

AQ Chicken said that Bill Clinton celebrated his 47th birthday with pan-fried chicken at the restaurant. And Kat Robinson, an Arkansas food writer and historian, described President George W. Bush coming to northwest Arkansas, wanting to eat at AQ and being unable to fit the visit into his schedule. So the president had his Secret Service agents get takeout from the restaurant to eat on Air Force One. “It was one of those places you had to go,” she said.

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