1410 N. Arkansas Avenue, Russellville AR 72801(map); 479-968-1410
Cooking Method: Flat griddle
Short Order: Hometown favorite for more than 40 years, with long standing credibility as a must-stop for travelers.
Want Fries with That? Unless you need to share with a party of four, don't get the full size order of fries. Get the personal size, or half-size if you're especially hungry.
Price: Whatta-Burger, $3.35; w/cheese, $3.87; Double, $5.02; Double w/cheese, $5.54; Fries: regular, $2.71; small, $1.67; personal, $1; shakes: 12-oz, $1.70; 16-oz, $1.99; 24-oz, $2.57; 32-oz, $3.32
On any trip of any length, there is at least one must-stop detour to the destination. For travelers making the journey between Little Rock and northwest Arkansas, that stop is at Feltner's Whatta-Burger.
Robert "Bob" Feltner started serving up hot custom made burgers and mammoth orders of french fries back in 1967. The restaurant has expanded a little since then, and Mr. Feltner has passed on from this world, but the eatery's still going strong.
Inside the brown building with its big A-frame in the middle you'll find all manner of decorations—from kites and stuffed animals to homilies and sayings on wooden plaques, trophies and portraits of local sports teams, big framed Readers Choice awards from the Arkansas Times, and letters of thanks from just about everyone. It's worth a stop just to read the walls.
When you go in, a member of the wait staff will take your order on a white paper bag. That bag is passed back to an assembly line that's sunk a few inches below the level of the dining portion of the restaurant. Matching caps bob above the counter as the guys and girls at the griddle and fry stations go about filling orders. The heated buns and freshly cooked burgers are passed along to the next station, where condiments and vegetables are put on. The American cheese goes on the bottom; condiments are on the top bun, and the vegetation is sandwiched between that condiment-soaked top bun and the meat. Mayo here isn't mayonnaise; it's Miracle Whip, and it lends a certain tartness to the burger assembly.
Each order on its white bag is filled, and if there's more to the order than fills the bag more white paper sacks are attached by clothespins. When each order is completed, it's slid out to the register to the cashier, waiting with a tray for your drink, shake, or pie order and a squeeze bottle filled with Hunt's ketchup. Napkins are on the table.
Burgers are custom made with whatever you want on them, but locals know the terminology of the place. For instance, there's the Whatta-Sissy topped with cheese, tomato, lettuce, and mayo reportedly named after the chosen burger of Mr. Feltner's daughter. This combination somehow conveys savory and tart, creamy and crisp and juicy all in one bite. Burgers are always cooked through.
I've visited the restaurant on and off over 20 years. The burgers have never changed—very light on the spice, but decently flavored by a griddle that's seen a good deal of wear and tear over time.
You don't order the full sized order of french fries unless you have a small army with you. The acceptable choice is the half-order, which is still a lot of fries. There's now even a "personal size" that contains about the same amount of french fries as what you'll get in a large order at a burger chain. The fries are crunchy on the outside and a little soft inside, decent for ketchup but perfect for dipping in your chocolate shake. That's right—in the shake.
And the shakes are something else. A 16-ounce medium is usually enough. Few order the extra large—32 ounces of "thick and rich, able to hold up a straw indefinitely, but still slurp-able through same straw" dairy delight may be too much of a good thing. They offer the traditional chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry, but also pineapple, peanut butter, cherry, banana and butterscotch, and they're almost always available. There are also fried pies ($2.02) in chocolate, apple, peach, and cherry. I never have room for one, somehow.
In case you were wondering, Feltner's Whatta-Burger has nothing to do with the Texas-based Whataburger chain. Different individuals around Russellville have told me different stories about what happened there, but what they all seem to agree on is that there was some sort of agreement reached years ago that Whataburger would never come to town and Whatta-Burger wouldn't expand outside of Russellville. Which is fine with the locals—they'd like their hometown mainstay to stay exactly where it is, thank you very much.
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