I was on my way home Saturday night about 8:30 when I noticed the action over at Chip’s Barbecue. It’s the closest restaurant to my house, and I’ve had many a dinner there. The sign was being changed. The next morning, I was surprised to see what it said: Goodbye Mr. Chip.
That’d be Tom Chipman. Back in 1961 he opened Chip’s Barbecue as a drive-in in a strip-mall on Markham, back when there wasn’t out much down West Markham but a few neighborhoods here and there. Five years later he moved the business into a spot on the other side of that strip mall and opened a dining room. The place is still there today.
I have to be honest — even though I’ve lived in Little Rock most of my life, I didn’t have my first meal at Chip’s until the day we found the house I live in now. I didn’t even know there was a neighborhood tucked in back there. After seeing this particular house and falling in love, my then-husband and I went and had a late lunch at Chip’s. I can even remember we shared a big order of nachos. It was a nice family place.
And Chip’s? It’s about family. Along the wood-paneled walls of the restaurant are numerous family photos from over the years, many with hand-lettered or typed labels explaining who’s who. I found that the former owner of my house raised kids with the Chipman’s. From the photos they appeared to have had an idyllic teenhood, swimming and playing and working in the restaurant together.
I only met Mr. Chipman once, and it was by chance back in the early oughts. What I know of him is that he raised a heck of a family, a family dedicated to running that restaurant. What I didn’t know was that he was a World War II veteran, or that he’d been married to his wife Tina for 66 years — or that he had great grandchildren. He was, after all, 91.
But I do know Kara, his daughter. Back when I was writing my first cover story for the Arkansas Times, she let me come in and photograph pies… for over an hour. Pie after pie
after pie… and that’s a noteworthy thing. That’s because Chip’s pies are Little Rock’s sweetest secret. You have to know about Chip’s to have some of that pie… but folks who know about it guard it and keep it to themselves, and order pies weeks in advance for holidays. There are cream pies galore — banana and lemon and coconut and chocolate and banana, and sometimes sweet potato or pumpkin, too. There are variations, like the marvelous chocolate walnut pie. And then there are the cheesecakes — big, four inch thick affairs served up plain or with raspberry sauce or strawberries or chocolate or… and there’s pecan pie and seasonal pies like strawberry or blueberry. Every one of them made from scratch from a family recipe. Every one.
Last year, Chip’s Barbecue turned 50… quietly. There could have been a fantastic spread somewhere about the cheese dip, or something about the Muffin Special or the nachos or the ribs or whatever. Instead, Chip’s stayed as it always has. In fact, the only big change I have ever seen from the place is when the family decided it’d be open on Mondays. It still is and will always be closed on Sundays.
The restaurant will be closed until Wednesday. Visitation for Mr. Chipman will be tonight and services tomorrow — you can look here for more information. A sign on the door of the restaurant reads:
“Chip’s will be closed July 9th and 10th, 2012 due to a funeral being attended in honor of one of the founders of Chip’s Barbecue. Chip’s was established May 6, 1961 by Thomas and Tina Chipman. Mer. Chipman has recently passed and gone to be with our Lord. His employees were so very special to him. It was impossible to keep the restaurant open and allow all family members and employees to pay their respects without being closed. We cincerely regret any inconvenience to all our customers. We will reopen July 11, 2012. Please keep us in your prayers during this very difficult time. Sincerely, the Chipman Family.”
So goodbye, Mr. Chipman. Your legacy and your restaurant will continue on.