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What do folks think of when they think of Arkansas? The Clintons? Football fanatics? Natural beauty? Fine cuisine is probably not high on the list. There have always been great restaurants here and there, but the Arkansas food scene has probably had more ebbs than flows over the years.
Lately, however, things are looking up. Just take a look at our "Best Of" list. If our readers are the judge, two of the state's best restaurants — South on Main in Little Rock and the Hive in Bentonville — just opened in the last year.
If we are to search for the beginning of this happy wave, a good place to start might be 2006, when Lee Richardson arrived as executive chef at the Capital Hotel and reopened the upscale Ashley's restaurant.
Richardson, a New Orleans native who had worked under John Besh, among others, was a wonderfully gifted chef, but he also set about building an unusually talented team at the Capital. Richardson recruited folks with Arkansas roots who had been trained at some of the best restaurants in the country — Little Rock native Brian Deloney returned home after spending 10 years with Emeril; another Little Rock native, Matthew McClure, came back from Boston; Conway native Travis McConnell returned from Portland, and Mountain Home native Cassidee Dabney left the world-renowned Blackberry Farm in east Tennessee to come to the Capital.
"We had traveled around, and we walked into Ashley's like we already knew how to cook; we already had these ideas about food," McClure said. "Then we got exposed to the Arkansas farmers markets, and all those networks of farmers evolved and cultivated the way we thought about what we could do in the state of Arkansas and really expanded it.
"It was amazing to work in the same kitchen as these guys. Now that we've all kind of gone our separate ways, there's an unspoken brotherhood or club that we're in. You don't realize you joined it, but you did."
Before he left the Capital in 2012, Richardson drew national acclaim for his work in Little Rock, with multiple nominations for the James Beard Foundation Awards, the prestigious honors awarded to the nation's top chefs and restaurateurs. As those who worked under him have started to branch out on their own, there's been a ripple effect that has impacted the culinary scene in Arkansas, which Richardson said "was my intention from the beginning. ... If I could provide an opportunity for people to learn and to develop and to grow, the reward for that is that they're going to go and do their own thing." Slowly but surely, restaurants are popping up with the same ambition and quality that Richardson brought to the Capital, and the same vision of meticulously crafted food sourced by local ingredients.
Longtime Little Rock residents remember Jacques and Suzanne, which opened in 1975 and drew nearly universal acclaim as the finest restaurant in the city for the next decade. It closed in 1986, but alums from Jacques and Suzanne went on to work at or founded dozens of restaurants, forming the bedrock of the city's dining scene in the decades to come.
Something similar is afoot among Capital alums. McClure is now the executive chef at The Hive, the Bentonville restaurant in the 21c Museum Hotel. The restaurant, which opened last February, is the choice of Times readers for numerous "Best of" categories, and is already in the conversation for best restaurant in the state; it's also getting national acclaim, with McClure recently named a James Beard semifinalist.
"Every chef in the country that has a clue is looking at that [James Beard] list to see if their name is going to be called," McClure said. "It's amazing. To be from Arkansas and bring something like that ... it's just a huge win for Arkansas. We're competing on that level."
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