I strongly considered not creating this yearly award. After all, there’s only so much the public gets to see of a restaurateur’s work. We don’t have access to the extensive paperwork, the juggling of profit margins across a menu or the way he/she treats employees. Still, we do get to see enough of a restaurant owner’s impact on the city’s food scene that I felt this award was justified. And while there are a large number of competent, successful restaurant owners in Little Rock, it is Tomas Böhm who stood out to me as having the most remarkable year.
To say that The House Gastropub was in disarray in 2013 would be kind. For several years, The House switched menus and styles while the early 20th century building itself decayed. It was pretty clear to many that The House wouldn’t last, and when the doors did close for good, the state of the restaurant left many to wonder if anybody would take it over.
Still, as bad as the building was, the location was prime, and at the beginning of 2014, Böhm announced he was moving in to the building to open a second version of his massively popular restaurant The Pantry. Böhm had many reasons for opening The Pantry Crest, not the least of which was that he had met his wife there when it was still Sufficient Grounds. And so Böhm got to work on restoring the old building. The grand opening date: April 2014.
It soon became clear that goal was unachievable. The building was in horrible shape. Walls had to come down, floors be ripped out, and even the foundation had to be adjusted and relaid. It was a nightmare scenario for any restaurant owner. Böhm was staring at a $300,000 renovation and months of waiting before he could begin making money at his second location. In the time between Böhm’s announcing of The Pantry Crest and its actual opening day, One Eleven at the Capital, Kemuri, Good Food by Ferneau, Butcher and Public, Baja Grill, and Oishi all both announced and completed their grand openings.
And still Böhm plugged away. For nine months, crews worked daily on tearing down the worst parts of the building and restoring those that could be saved. The walls and flooring were removed; the staircase and patio were repaired. All the while, Böhm kept up with his flagship restaurant on Rodney Parham, visiting every dinner guest that came in and making sure that food and service remained at a high level.
The unimaginable work and time investment has truly paid off. The Pantry Crest is all but unrecognizable from its predecessors. Segmenting walls have been eliminated, opening up the dining room into a lighter, but cozy, space. Fixtures, artwork, décor and colors all blended in beautifully with the Hillcrest neighborhood while remaining fresh and exciting. The structure is finally sound again; Böhm says the building should last another 200 years. And Böhm has done it all while keeping the hallmarks that have made The Pantry so popular: European comfort food, warm service, very reasonable prices and a welcoming sense of familiarity.
It’s possible that other restaurateurs have done as much as or more than Böhm has this year. But in my mind, none has done so while making such a large impact on Little Rock’s food scene. Böhm has taken a neglected, abandoned building and turned it into an inviting home for all of Little Rock to enjoy. It’s why Tomas Böhm is the Little Rock Foodcast’s pick for best restaurateur of 2014.
Third runner up: The Capital Hotel (One Eleven, Capital Bar & Grill)
Note: The window for the Little Rock Foodcast’s “Best of 2014” period is Dec. 15, 2013-Dec. 14, 2014.
Other Little Rock Foodcast “Best of 2014” honors:
Best new restaurant – Kemuri
Best chef – Scott Rains, Table 28
Best restaurant – Friday