Several years ago, when I moved to the Ozarks, I asked around for a special place to celebrate my husband’s birthday. More than one person told me Top of the Rock at Big Cedar was just the place – it was a fairly short drive, served incredible food, and had a rustic, romantic atmosphere. Unfortunately, a kitchen fire that year caused the restaurant to close before we could visit. I’ve had plenty of other great times at Big Cedar through the years, however—girlfriend getaways and celebration dinners at the resort’s other great restaurants, like Devil’s Pool (think fried chicken livers and smoked trout with a stunning view of Table Rock Lake).
One recent afternoon, I was ecstatic to receive an email message saying that after a seven-year renovation, Top of the Rock was reopening. I called my friend JoAnn Dukes and told her we had to head to Big Cedar—ASAP.
JoAnn was celebrating her 55th wedding anniversary that week and I was graduating with a master’s degree (at age 51!), so we both felt like celebrations were in order. We loaded the car and headed toward Branson, not really knowing what to expect. Our minds were blown by what we found at Top of the Rock.
The email said that Top of the Rock would include an Ancient Ozarks Natural History Museum, which I knew JoAnn would adore. She’s always doing research on the history of the Ozarks, genealogy and such. When wewalked through the lobby door of Top of the Rock and were face to face with the skeleton of a 10-ton giant woolly mammoth, we were both speechless! As you walk under and past the exhibits, you feel like you are in Chicago’s Field Museum, and for a reason—they were created by Blue Rhino Studio, the firm that assisted with the exhibitions in the Field.
The museum was still under construction when we were there in June, but when finished, it will house one of the largest collections of Native American artifacts in the world. It will lead visitors through a chronological history of the Ozarks through artifacts, images, text, and video. Besides the woolly mammoth, there is a saber tooth cat, giant ground sloth skeleton, and prehistoric cave bears.
The museum experience doesn’t end in the lobby. The restaurants themselves are like incredible museums you don’t want to leave. Take Arnie’s Barn, for example. It’s the more casual dining option at Top of the Rock serving Mexican fare. The restaurant itself is a 150-year-old barn that was brought from golfing legend Arnold Palmer’s hometown in Pennsylvania and reconstructed on-site by a local Amish family. Some of the timbers from the barn—which include now-extinct American chestnut—are so old, historians are carbon dating them. It is believed that when the barn was built 150 years ago, some of the wood was already well over 100 years old. The vaulted ceilings with 46-foot timbers and floor-to-ceiling windows look out over a nine-hole par-3 golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus. In fact, at the back of the bar, you’ll find a life-sized mount of a 1,358-pound black marlin caught by Nicklaus off the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. It is the fourth largest fish by weight—and still the largest by measurement (15 feet 6 inches)—ever caught on a rod and reel. Everywhere you look, there are wonders to behold!
Another wonder to behold at Arnie’s Barn, I later found out when JoAnn and I returned for our second trip with two other friends, Shelley Crutcher and Lee Kothe, are the margaritas. The girls stuck with the house favorite, “Arnie’s Margarita,” which had a splash of orange juice, but I went straight for the watermelon margarita with fresh watermelon puree. Everyone agreed mine was over-the-top fantastic! If we had been braver, or had more time, we would have tried the habanero lime margarita or the Ozark Mountain margarita, which featured a blood orange liqueur, a cinnamon rim, and an orange. Next time…
We found that the food was as delicious as the margaritas. Dos Equis-battered cod tacos with Mexico City street corn-on-the-cob and grilled all-natural chicken enchiladas were favorites.
You need time to linger, because the golf pro shop and the grounds themselves are spectacular. We were told there are 17 fireplaces at Top of the Rock—some inside, some out. The one in Arnie’s Barn is big enough to walk right into. The outdoor sculpture and fish ponds will have you mesmerized, but the focal point, at the end of a long covered walkway, is an infinity pool that appears to drop off into Table Rock Lake with a stunning silhouette of James Earle Fraser’s sculpture, End of the Trail.
Osage Restaurant is the “cornerstone dining experience” at Top of the Rock. It overlooks the infinity pool and has sweeping views of the Ozark Mountains and Table Rock Lake. JoAnn and I couldn’t even take in all of the custom artwork and native artifacts. Every detail in the restaurant is of unparalleled beauty. When we exhausted ourselves (and felt we had walked every inch of the restaurant), we settled at table 11—a prime spot for watching the sunset over the infinity pool. I ordered pan-roasted Rockbridge trout amandine, featuring trout from the beautiful fresh spring water at Rockbridge Trout and Game Ranch in Rockbridge, Missouri, while JoAnn ordered brown-sugar-glazed cedar-plank salmon with garlic spinach orzo and Missouri-grown heirloom tomatoes and olives. We agreed, it was one of the best meals we had ever had, made even more special by a visit with Johnny Morris, creator of Top of the Rock, Big Cedar, and Bass Pro Shops.
While he’s listed on the Forbes 400 list as a Billionaire (capital B), he walked the floor of Osage Restaurant visiting with guests as if he were still working in his daddy’s Springfield liquor store, Brown Derby, in his denim shirt with a Bass Pro Shop emblem on the chest.
“Are you enjoying yourselves?” he asked JoAnn and me.
“Lord, yes!” we said.
“Great! Tell all your friends to come see us,” he said, as he strolled on to the next table.
Amazed that the Johnny Morris had just asked how we liked our dinner, we walked off our meal by following a stone-lined stairwell that leads to the Buffalo Bar, where Rod Stewart look-alike Don Audette sang in a raspy voice that was a dead-ringer for Rod. While it was tempting to sit and enjoy the music, JoAnn pulled me along through the fabulous “End of Trail” All-American Wine Cellar, which has its own tasting bar, whiskey room, and a vault of American wines. We rounded the corner at the perfect moment to catch the bright orange sun setting behind the slumped American Indian on horseback. We were speechless.
It was the perfect ending to a perfect celebration—of hers, of mine, and of the breathtaking Ozarks JoAnn and I both love and call home.
Note: In the coming weeks, Top of the Rock will feature a two-and-a-half-mile ride in an electric cart through Lost Canyon Nature Trail. Johnny Morris spent hundreds of hours walking the land and painstakingly cutting a trail that would bring visitors into contact with dramatic features of nature such as stunning rock formations, beautiful views of Table Rock Lake, and the remarkable Lost Canyon Cave with its spectacular waterfalls. Be sure to notice the primitive hand-painted directional signage. Johnny Morris (Capital B), painted every one himself. M! August/September 2014