The Observer’s girlfriend’s birthday fell on a recent weekend. A few months back when we realized that her birthday was on a Friday, it was determined we couldn’t just spend another weekend at home ordering takeout, watching true crime and bitching about how two-day weekends are an outdated concept. My girlfriend’s already had one completely uneventful pandemic birthday, so I blew my paycheck on a plush, modern Airbnb condo in Hot Springs with rooftop access overlooking Bathhouse Row. A bit excessive, perhaps, but necessary on account of how shitty the past 15 months have been. When I booked the condo, I had no idea Arkansas would be in the depths of another COVID-19 disaster. Not that we would be hitting the bars, mingling at lake parties or hugging strangers after winning copious amounts of cash at Oaklawn, but it would’ve been nice to get to relax because constantly planning around a highly transmissible respiratory viral infection is anything but.
As far as the trip was concerned, The Observer’s mind was on one thing: food. That’s what tourism has become in my middle age. I had loose plans centered on flavor profiles I thought would please my girlfriend’s palate, which I would say is slightly mature but leans heavily on youthful nostalgia. For example, pizza: pepperoni, but an occasional hankering for fancy sausage and peppadew; burgers: bun, meat and cheese. Steak: well done with ketchup. Just kidding.
One of the more hyped burgers I’ve heard about the past year is served the way she likes them at one of the most touted pizza joints in Arkansas, Deluca’s Pizzeria. And while most of the fanfare for Anthony Valinoti’s Brooklyn-style pizza is well-deserved, The Observer would be remiss not to mention that I would’ve chosen something else had this been after the beloved pizza joint posted an Instagram story meme of Dr. Rachel Levine — the first openly transgender government official confirmed by the Senate — with a caption that read “Andrew Cuomo touched my balls.” That’s something I would imagine a pimple-faced teenage boy watching “Beavis And Butt-Head” episodes on his PlayStation 5 reposting, not an actual business that depends on people of all types as customers and employees.
Deluca’s was filled to capacity, which wasn’t surprising given the traffic on Central Avenue. Walking through a completely full shotgun-style restaurant is always a bit awkward, but being the only masked person in the crowded, loud (I forgot how loud restaurants can be) dining room during the delta surge felt bewildering. Yes, you cannot eat while wearing a mask, but you can space out, you can take your food to go, you can mask up while you wait for your food to come out. The staff was friendly despite how slammed they were and had me in and out in just a few minutes.
The burgers were simple but great. Maybe the “proprietary blend of aged beef exclusively for Deluca’s” is the reason. Maybe simple burgers with an absurd amount of cheese are just good. Regardless, my girlfriend was happy and that was the goal. We got drunk and watched true crime. I read a couple of old 2019 Arkansas Times issues that were stacked on the entry table of the condo. Every article pre-2020 felt like a time capsule into a world we all used to know that doesn’t exist anymore and will only exist in memories and indelible artifacts. Even if this shit ends, we’ll never be the same.
For dinner the following night I envisioned us eating pizza on the rooftop like Jim and Pam did in one of those early seasons of “The Office.” They were trying to avoid their crazy office workers who’d kidnapped the pizza delivery driver. We were trying to avoid the plague. The Observer was looking forward to trying the pizza at SQZBX and was crushed to learn that the restaurant was so busy it quit taking to-go orders. So we picked up a pie from Rocky’s Corner across the street from Oaklawn. In another capacity crowd with very little spacing, I spotted one mask around a guy’s neck at the bar and made a mental note that this pandemic was never going to end.
The next morning I got up early and walked in the rain to Will’s Cinnamon Shop. The parking lot was crowded, but I was relieved to see a sign on the door requiring masks. That relief turned to despair when I saw that more than half of the crowd were not abiding by the shop’s rule. The line grew long enough to bump into tables in the dining room and the manager had to direct incoming customers to wait outside. Please tip well at restaurants. They are dealing with people high on horse dewormer and misinformation.
I took comfort that the two paramedics in line in front of me were strongly masked, but they got called away before they could place their order. “Every time,” one of them said and left me wondering if that response would’ve been the same pre-delta variant.
Reaching the head of the line lands you face to face with a masked person taking orders (a good reason to be courteous and mask the fuck up) and you get to watch another employee douse your fresh roll (I saw them bring in a fresh batch from the oven) in either original cinnamon glaze icing, cream cheese, orange, lemon or maple coffee. It being the first visit, I got a couple of classics.
The verdict: delightful. We probably could’ve split one. Girlfriend was happy. I plan on returning to try additional icing flavors, just not on a weekend.
On the rainy drive home we found ourselves confused, yet again. We know now that people don’t care, but seeing so many people in indoor public places without a care in the world is still discombobulating. What will future generations think of us? Surely that we’re a collective nation of proud assholes that were as selfish and dumb as ever in a time when science was as bold as ever. But, hey, the food in the crowded restaurant was pure ecstasy despite the long wait and those crabby masked servers.
We saw a long row of legs dangling from the sky attached to a roller coaster soaring through the air at Magic Springs, pouring rain be damned. Looked about right.