He Said: We had been to Holly’s, a Conway institution since 1999, exactly once since moving to town 14 years ago, and we figured it was about time to go back. This Southern, home-cooking Mecca is open only for lunch on weekdays, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and if you’re going, you might want to take pains not arrive at the peak period from noon to one o’clock, or be prepared to wait awhile. We took our time and arrived right around 1 p.m.
She Said: When we were brand new Conwegians, one of my UCA students said, "Ms. Jones, you gotta go to Holly’s!" and that’s the last time we had been there, as He Said said. I love the food, but I don’t love the calories, so this is the kind of place I try not to frequent in my civilian life; as a reviewer, it’s a joy and a pleasure to schedule a meal like this!
He Said: You order at a counter that looks kind of like a buffet but isn’t. More like a cafeteria, I guess, where you tell the lunch lady what it is you want. The rest of the place is not very large considering how many people they can get in here. There are some relatively private four-top tables around the perimeter, but in the center of the room there are three very long tables, I suppose for large parties, but since most customers are likely to be in parties of two to four for lunch, this means that a lot of people end up sitting at long tables that they share with other diners. Perhaps this gives some people a feeling of home-style hospitality. For me this kind of seating is like a forced fun march with people I’ve never met—an introvert’s nightmare.
She Said: Yeah, we’re not communal table types; the only time I enjoy it is in Europe where I can’t understand the people around me. But this wasn’t bad for us, as we didn’t have table mates until we were almost done, and they kept to themselves at the far end of the table. They must have been introverts, too. Holly’s is a cafeteria, shared tables, trays, ordering over the food to the server, etc. That’s not my favorite restaurant situation (I like to sit and be waited on), but it all works for Holly’s. It accommodates a lot of people, you can see the food you’re choosing, and you can choose your table, as much as the crowd allows.
He Said: They have mainly Coke products as serve-yourself fountain drinks. They did have lemonade, which I probably should have had, but I opted for the Dr. Pepper instead.
She Said: I chose unsweetened iced tea, of course, and it was very good, and went perfectly with the southern food.
He Said: The "regular" plate here, which I assume is the most popular item on the menu, gives you a choice of one meat and two sides. The meat today was fried chicken or fried catfish. The sides include several potato options, vegetable options and a macaroni and cheese side, which is apparently pretty popular as they happened to be out when our turn came. You also get a choice of bread. I ordered fried chicken, receiving a wing and a thigh, green beans, and French-fried potatoes. For my bread, I picked a cornbread muffin.
Now many of you may be saying right now, "But He Said, what about your pancreatic condition? Isn’t that a lot of fried stuff? What about the fat contents of these items? Aren’t you going over your diet?" Well first of all, thanks for looking out for me there, dear reader. Second, it was either fried fish or fried chicken, so I didn’t have a healthy option there. If I’d had the mashed potatoes, I’d have either had to have gravy, which is notoriously high in fat, or skip the gravy and just put a pat of butter and some salt on them, which wasn’t particularly appetizing and wouldn’t have served the purposes of the review, since it wouldn’t be the way people eat those things. I could have had fried okra for the vegetable, which would have made things worse, fried-wise. Or I could have waited until they had the macaroni and cheese replenished. But hello, cheese? That’s a lot of fat too. So I got what I got.
The fried chicken was delicious. Holly’s breading and seasoning is very tasty and really does taste like Mom used to make. But it was greasy enough to remind me that I was getting a good dose of fat from it. The green beans were just like my Mom used to make too—out of a Green Giant can. They were OK, but nothing special there. The corn bread muffin was fairly typical of such muffins at restaurants in the South, so okay but nothing special. The French fries, on the other hand, were outstanding. Very crispy on the outside—a bit of batter of some sort on them, I think, to make them so crispy—and hot and tender on the inside. Some of the best fries around I’d say, bar none.
Jones twisted my arm and forced me to share a slice of chocolate cream pie with her, and it was incredibly rich and chocolatey, essentially a chocolate pudding filling on a flaky crust topped with whipped cream. I was positive I’d passed my fat quota for the day by then and had to scrape off the whipped cream to justify my finishing the chocolate.
The whole meal was delicious home-style cooking, which means there was a lot of fat and not a lot of health-food options. I enjoyed it, but paid for it with a few digestive issues later, caused, I’m sure, by my exceeding my fat limit for the day.
She Said: Thank you, dear readers, for your concern for He Said! I was concerned for him as well as my pre-birthday diet (so I can put the pounds back on over the weekend). I ate no more than I needed to survive before we arrived, and I wasn’t hungry the rest of the day. I chose the regular plate, too, partly because the vegetable options weren’t plentiful enough for me to make a plate of those without it being all fried and all potato. Now, I know, dear reader, that this is not why one comes to Holly’s and I promise I’m judging it by asking my typical question, "Is it good at what it’s good for?" Yes, of course, yes. But I still have to live with the bigger-clothes consequences.
I had the fried chicken, as well, but asked for dark meat, so I got a thigh and a leg. It was delicious, and even though it’s southern, maybe country cookin’ everywhere shares the same satisfying tastiness, because it really took me back to my small-town South Dakota childhood and church-lady chicken. The meat was undry and flavorful, and the breading was the perfect textural and flavor compliment for the dark meat. It was, I noticed right away, not hot. Now, I like cold fried chicken right out of the fridge, if I can get it, so I didn’t mind, but I expected it to be warmer. I, too, got the green beans, and agree with you, Ruud, that they were not the highlight of the meal. I got them because I went for the mashed potatoes and brown gravy, and I couldn’t bear to get anything else fried or another potato (and the mac and cheese was gone). The mashed potatoes were something to write home about: They were smooth and creamy, and the brown gravy was definitely another taste of home.
The pie really reminded me of my childhood, because my Missouri-raised mother used to make chocolate meringue pies, and this was very reminiscent of that, only with the whipped cream you mention instead of the browned, lighter meringue. The chocolate cream pudding was a little heavier than my mother’s, but it was definitely rich and satisfying, and the crust, too, was just like Mom used to make. The perfect dessert to accompany the meal.
He Said: Well, it was lunch lady style cafeteria service, but she was a nice lunch lady, so the service is fine for what it is.
She Said: Everyone was friendly and helpful, especially for the two of us, the Holly’s newbies. They had several uncleared tables when we arrived, and there were some of the coveted two- and four-tops empty, but not cleaned when we went to sit down. I heard a staffer say they’d been hit particularly hard and were trying to catch up, so it was just the luck of the timing draw.
What We Got and What We Paid: One regular plate of fried chicken, green beans, mashed potatoes and gravy, one regular plate of fried chicken, green beans, and French fries, one slice of chocolate pie (shared), one unsweetened iced tea, and one Dr. Pepper, all for $26.56.
Elapsed Time from Entry to Food Arrival: 4 minutes.
He Said: Much as I’d like to go back, I would really have to find a way to cut down on the fat and fried dominance. There is a vegetarian plate option, but many of the vegetables are fried as well. It would take some thinking.
She Said: This is definitely on my list for calorie splurges, as well as for food nostalgia. Holly’s is probably the best at what it’s good for in Conway, the real deal in down-home cooking, and the queen of fried chicken, in my book.
So…He Said and She Said: Go here for cafeteria-style southern food and don’t miss the fried chicken!
Editor's Note: Eat It, Conway is produced by local author Jay Ruud and his wife (poet and novelist Stacey Margaret Jones). The couple has begun an attempt to eat at and review, every restaurant in Conway, Arkansas. The Log Cabin Democrat and thecabin.net are publishing Eat It, Conway with permission from the authors. Visit them online at jayruud.com and on Facebook at Eat It, Conway. In addition to restaurant reviews, Ruud authors movie reviews on the site.