By Karen Ott Mayer | Photography courtesy of Café Klaser
Tourists and locals alike have discovered that Café Klaser is a culinary gem right on Arkansas’ Little Red River.
With summer travel to the beach or a lake only a memory by now, thoughts turn to holidays and school years. But what if the best time to visit that favorite locale is actually during the off-season when the lines disappear and the menu changes? Café Klaser in Heber Springs, Arkansas, remains a popular dining spot for many seasonal tourists who enjoy the rustic setting on the Little Red River.
Owner and founder William Klaser, or Billy to many, built a strong culinary career before ending up in Heber Springs. Originally from McGee, Arkansas, his early days centered on sports and his family’s business.
“At 19, I was injured and began helping my parents in their business,” he says. During that time, he read about a culinary apprenticeship program in Florida. “I spoke to the chef at the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida, and started in June 1982,” he says.
He stayed several years until his return to Arkansas where he became the executive chef at the Little Rock Country Club for three years. He circled back towards home, accepting a position at the Lake Village Country Club and eventually also running the Walnut Lake Country Club kitchen.
“It was a lot because they were 30-to-40 miles apart,” he remembers.
During this time, he was camping in the Heber Springs area and began nurturing a dream to move to the area, which he did in1998. He opened his first location in town.
“By 1999, I started building the restaurant on the river,” Klaser says. “We were trying to do it as we could and began by pouring the pad. It was mainly me doing it.”
Café Klaser opened in 2001 and continues to welcome guests nearly two decades later, seating approximately 250 guests with nearly half on the outdoor deck. Although located in a dry county, Klaser secured a liquor license in 2004. “This is a very wet dry county,” he says with a laugh.
His menu changes every couple of years and the restaurant offers weekly and nightly specials. Open year round, the restaurant keeps menu favorites but adds a twist like a soup bar during the colder months.
No matter the season, Klaser offers homemade bread, making 100 loaves a day during the busy times. His son, Billy Jr., and daughter, Ellie, also help along with another chef. Café Klaser is perhaps best known for Klaser’s signature stuffed steak, a five-ounce filet stuffed with rice and crawfish cream sauce. “That’s one of our best sellers,” says Klaser.
Klaser’s son, Billy Jr., followed his father’s footsteps to Florida and brought home some new ideas.
“My son spent time in St. Augustine at a gourmet pizzeria. When he came home, we added pizzas to the menu.”
Generally, Klaser describes the menu as eclectic with a little bit of something for everyone. “We have fried foods, pastas and salads.”
Café Klaser welcomes groups, especially during the holiday season, as the space includes two private meeting rooms. Café Klaser also caters private events outside the restaurant. They are closed on Thanksgiving Day to allow employees to be with their families.
Perhaps the only thing equally important to Klaser as serving good food to his guests is his commitment to the larger community. He is involved with the Wounded Warrior Project but humbly defers the attention for his work, preferring to contribute quietly.
Local business owners Beau and Renee Saunders know the restaurant well. “We eat there most every night during the summer because we are so busy,” says Renee.
The Saunders own Lobo Landing Marina in the mountain township of Heber. Her husband, a fishing guide and veteran, personally know about Billy’s kindness as she explains. “We hardly ever see Billy when we’re there, but if he knows we have a group of veterans with us, he makes a point to come out and talk. Even if we didn’t know Billy, we’d still go because the food is excellent and so is the service.” In fact, when the couple lived in Searcy, Arkansas prior to purchasing the marina four years ago, they drove to Heber Springs just to eat at Café Klaser.
The fried oysters are her favorite menu item. “They have an all-you-can-eat buffet on Thursday nights with catfish and oysters. My favorite dessert is the pecan pie bread pudding!”
She agrees that when the tourists leave, fall is an ideal time for a visit. “Trout fishing is great in November. We like to go to Klaser’s also to just relax and have a drink. I even had my class reunion there.”
Renee says she thinks so many people love the spot because of the setting and environment. “It’s the kind of place you can go into with a suit and tie or a bathing suit and shorts. They are just super kind.”
414 Wilburn Rd, Heber Springs, Arkansas