Dardanelle always reminds us of “True Grit,” the classic novel by native Arkansan Charles Portis that was made into a movie starring John Wayne. Mattie Ross, the young girl whose adventures are chronicled in the book, was raised on “good bottom land on the south bank of the Arkansas River not far from Dardanelle in Yell County, Arkansas.”
Mattie might still recognize Dardanelle. The small town retains its old downtown street grid along the path of the river, just south of Russellville.
But she definitely wouldn’t recognize the food at Savanah’s River Front Cafe. This isn’t small-town fare. An impressive array of steaks and seafood dishes highlight a diverse and sophisticated menu.
Living in Little Rock, we don’t find ourselves in Dardanelle very often. But it was an easy detour from I-40 on our way back from Northwest Arkansas on a Tuesday evening. We exited at Russellville, drove south on Highway 7 for about 10 minutes and made the first left after we crossed the bridge over the Arkansas River. That put us on South Front Street, where Savanah’s has occupied an old downtown building since late 2004.
The place was already busy, which got our attention (Dardanelle on a Tuesday night?), and at its peak during our meal most of the tables were occupied. We were seated in the veranda, a converted garage at the back of the restaurant with a view of the river. The atmosphere was casually elegant, with white tablecloths and an assortment of wrought-iron and wood chairs.
Appetizers ranged from onion rings ($5.25) and smothered fries ($7.95) to bacon-wrapped scallops ($8.95) and shrimp cocktail ($9.95). We opted for the latter two items and found the shrimp cocktail as good as they come. The shrimp were large and fresh, and the cocktail sauce had the correct dose of horseradish — enough to give it a kick. We were a little less taken with the scallops. They were somewhat soft and seemed to evaporate in our mouths. And while we liked the bacon, it was thick and fatty and a little undercooked.
For an entree, we could choose from pastas, like chicken alfredo ($12.95) and shrimp alfredo ($14.95), to grilled chicken breast ($10.95), bacon-wrapped pork filet ($14.95), ribeye, filet and T-bone steaks ($15.95 to $18.95), fried shrimp ($14.95), grilled salmon ($14.95) and coldwater Atlantic lobster ($24.95). All entrees come with a salad, yeast rolls, and baked potato or French fries.
The prime rib ($13.95 to $17.95) was advertised as a favorite at Savanah’s, and we were not disappointed. It was a tender cut of meat, charcoal-grilled and slightly crispy on the outside, and each bite melted in our mouths. We also tried the stuffed flounder ($14.95), which was just as good. The fish was flaky and dusted with cayenne pepper, and the crab stuffing was rich and flavorful.
Savanah’s also features a long list of homemade cakes, pies and puddings. It does not serve alcohol (Yell County is dry), but you can bring your own beer or wine, and we saw plenty of people who did just that.
The service was attentive and friendly, and we enjoyed the relaxed setting, which welcomed families with young children as well as couples looking for a romantic evening. We would have loved to hang around a little longer to watch the sun set, but we had to get back to the city. Considering that the two of us had a great meal for around $50, we would like to get back to Dardanelle more often.