Big on Petit & Keet 

Readers give it several awards; Keet credits the loyal staff.

click to enlarge SHARING THE CREDIT: Petit & Keet owner Jim Keet says the loyal staff and family atmosphere accounts for the restaurant's success.
  • SHARING THE CREDIT: Petit & Keet owner Jim Keet says the loyal staff and family atmosphere accounts for the restaurant's success.

If you have a wild patterned shirt in the fashion that Louis Petit is known to wear, you might be able to win a free dinner at Petit & Keet, when the "father of fine dining" in Little Rock checks in on the restaurant at 1620 Market St. That's partner Jim Keet's idea, a fun sort of notion that comes to a person who thinks of the restaurant as one big happy family. The restaurant's success is due to so many in the big family, Keet said in a recent interview, that he did not want to be the focus of attention regarding this Readers Choice winner in the best restaurant, best new restaurant, best wine and best steak categories, as well as a finalist for best chef, burger, dessert, outdoor dining, pie and, right on target, in the most fun category.

Petit & Keet's (they rhyme) success "isn't about me," Keet said, but co-owners Petit, Keet's sons, the general manager, the assistant general manager, the chef, the bartender, the sommelier ... and so on.

"At this stage in my career," Keet said, "those relationships mean more to me." But Petit was out of town and sons Jake and Tommy were busy with the other family businesses — Taziki's Mediterranean Cafe, Paninis and Co. and KO Construction — and weren't available with for a sit-down. So it fell to Jim Keet to talk about how the Belgian Petit, whose good name goes back to Restaurant Jacques and Suzanne's, and Keet, a businessman and "recovering politician" who brought Wendy's to Arkansas in the 1970s and has been in the restaurant business since, came up with what has Arkansas Times' readers so gung-ho.

It was about this time of the year five years ago when Petit — who has the restaurant Louis Louis in Santa Rosa, Fla. — and Keet got together in Keet's condo in Destin over a bottle of Corton-Charlemagne white burgundy (and then another bottle of wine, and another), when Keet told Petit they ought to open a restaurant together. Petit agreed, and they opened another bottle of wine, "but we remember the conversation clearly," Keet said.

Later they talked about what to call the restaurant. Keet's original idea was Petit & Keet, but then they bounced around Cafe Americain (as in "Casablanca") and other names. But, rightly, they decided that putting their well-recognized names on the restaurant was the right note to strike. It is the 150th restaurant Keet has been affiliated with, and the first to bear his name.

The Keets and Petit also agreed that, except in extreme circumstances, one of the owners will always be at the restaurant, and they have fulfilled that commitment all but three days in the nine months Petit & Keet has been open.

Here are the things that make the restaurant a favorite among Times' readers:

• The eclectic menu, which includes charred salmon, rice hoecakes, pork chops and sweet potatoes, bison burgers and such. Price points run the gamut, too: The menu and setting attract people straight from the tennis courts or folks gussied up to celebrate their wedding anniversaries. This reporter, touring the kitchen, got to see panko-crusted avocado quarters on their way to the frying pan where they would meet crab ceviche, wasabi, chiles and cilantro, a dish that a Times reviewer called "fabulous."

• The bars. There are two: the large one, lit by bulbous Edison lights strung from a steel pole with rope, where during our visit the bartender was meticulously deseeding lemon slices that he would candy, dip in chocolate and add to a new drink, the Mole´, Mole´, Mole´. There is also an intimate and sophisticated wine bar off the front dining room, where the lucky waitstaff was gathered by the sommelier for a little education on — read tasting of — several kinds of wine so they could better inform the customers.

• The layout. Petit & Keet gutted the former 1620 Savoy (which was also Petit's Maison Louis in an earlier incarnation) and added a linear dining area along the front behind garage doors that can lift to create a patio. There's a private dining room between the large bar and the patio, separated only by glass doors engraved with a PK. There's another larger truly outdoor patio, heated by a water feature surrounded by flame, heaters hidden under chairs and one above that Keet said could heat half the city; there's also a retractable roof. Bocce ball and baggo courts are off the courtyard. Chic black tables and chrome and leather chairs and gray couches are throughout. It's a look that the customer defines — there are no white tablecloths, so if you feel casual, so does Petit & Keet. But sophisticates will feel right at home amid the sleek lines that feel as classy as what they've found in bigger cities.

Asked about the construction budget, Keet would say only that they ran "$1.4 million over budget."

The sectional layout of Petit & Keet allows for party rentals, and Keet said the restaurant will start catering in May.

• The staff. Keet said Petit & Keet's 72 employees, from kitchen to bar to table, are loyal; with only three exceptions, all who opened the restaurant are still there.

Keet is pleased with the praise given Petit & Keet, but said, "When I'll be happy is when 20 years from now it's still getting accolades."



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