My most un-sexy black Jansport swimsuit remains balled up on the floorboard of my car. It shares space with a coffee stained Wine Spectator from November (for the treadmill), a wooden embroidery hoop, a tangled wad of chartreuse embroidery floss and purple swim goggles with UVB protection. All of these items have been there since my last float trip in November. Float season can't come soon enough, really, so my swimsuit is ready, waiting in the car for a warm spring day and a cold, cold dip in an Ozark river to look for crayfish.
Reminiscing on past float trips during this week's 6 inch snow event, I'm reminded of the great comfort of a hot meal and wine found post float throughout the Ozarks. There are those restaurants which are automatically elevated to "truly wonderful" status where one can find a healthful vegetarian meal and a decent glass of wine served in a glass, the best way to finish off a day of eating Fig Newtons and peanuts and drinking a young Walla Walla out of a steel thermos.
Because I'm not very self conscious about my appearance after a float or a fire, I really don't mind sitting down at the Rolla Applebees in braids with my swimsuit peeking from my tank top to order a fresh glass of Mirassou and their black beans (extra steamed broccoli, no butter). No one there ever seems to mind, which is nice, that I look like something the proverbial cat dragged in, having been swimming and jumping off boulders all day.
In Poplar Bluff, after long and perfect days on the Eleven Point, we found our sunburned grungy selves at the Pasta House where I always ordered Sangiovese, not their most popular. I often sent back the caramelized brown wine, asking pretty please for a fresh glass, "...I'll take anything red, whatever's only opened in the past day and isn't a merlot or a Chianti or from California, please." So very accomodating, the waitstaff never bat an eye when I send back turned wine (even though I really don't look like someone who should know better?). Good vegetarian options, too.
Maybe it's cultural, maybe restaurateurs in the Ozarks who live around float towns come to expect grungy floaters, but in fact they welcome floaters. Heck, they'd rather be floating too! The Ozark Orchard in downtown Eminence, the heart of float country, is particularly charming, and they make a lovely trout with steamed green beans (they have a bar upstairs, with wine). Also in Eminence, Winfield's can whip up a slamming breakfast, and good hot coffee for the ride back home if the wind ripping through the river valley blows out your campstove one too many times.
If you find yourself in West Plains, bypass the fast food restaurants on the main drag and follow the brown signs to their Historic Downtown, a short drive off of Hwy. 63. On a corner in the town square rests the historic West Plains Opera House, built in 1886 by Thomas Johnson. Historically, the building held retail space on the first floor and on the second floor a full theater, orchestra pit and balcony. The building then served as a bank after purchase by O.H. Catron. In the late 1990s, West Plains native Russ Cochran began a complete restoration of the old opera house. It's a remarkable tin ceiling building, complete with a carefully restored antique hand carved bar, the likes of which I've rarely seen in the Ozarks.
Cafe 37 offers fancy comfort food-- blackened fish tacos with remoulade and pico de gallo over rice pilaf and avacado sour cream, a baked brie served with apple butter, all sorts of meat dishes, rich desserts, and a notable wine list. It's the wine list, the food, the room, the staff, the bar, the lighting, the lovely building that keeps bringing me back there when really I should just eat a Clif bar and a banana for dinner. But the wine list! There are usual suspects of course, some California pinot noir, I'm certain a merlot, but my eyes migrate to the 2007 Cotes du Rhone. I asked to see the bottle, presented to me unopened, and sure enough: an 07 Cotes du Rhone, in West Plains. (In recent months, I've ordered certain vintages yet served much younger vintages, much tighter wines that really shouldn't be served for a few more years. Then comes the rigamarole of sending it back, asking for the list again...and starting over). Their lovely stemware (great bordeaux glasses) only highlights their wines. Up the road on Preacher Roe Blvd. is Cafe 37's wine shop and lunch place, Grapevine. Quiche, sandwiches, salads, and a fancy wine shop in West Plains.
Back home, sidled up next to the usual crew to watch tennis (Federer-Simon) while the snow started to fall, I regaled my friends with tales of Cafe 37. No one believed me, no one in the group--despite all the days and weeks spent floating in the Ozarks--had ever taken Business 63 to 160/17 to Historic Downtown. "West Plains? A great restaurant in West Plains?" Yes, West Plains. And, to boot, much nicer stemware than any restaurant around here.