As good a year as 2014 was for Little Rock, and as many restaurants performed at such a high level, this was still the easiest “best of 2014” honor for me to pick. That’s really no slight to other chefs and restaurants that didn’t make the cut here. As high as the quality was throughout the city this year, there are plenty of wonderful restaurants doing great work that aren’t mentioned here. But this pick is for the best restaurant of 2014, and in my mind, South on Main is the clear winner.
The food coming out of chef Matthew Bell’s kitchen is consistently exceptional. This year, several of Bell’s new dishes became Little Rock staples, like duck wings, pork rinds and skillet bread. Indeed, his appetizer list is one of the best in the city, with trotters, oysters and smoked pork cheeks all standing out as solid offerings. Heck, any one of those could stand as a signature plate, and that’s before you even get to the main courses, which tend to offer some surprise bonuses. The roasted chicken breast includes a free deep-fried chicken leg. The rabbit includes a ham-wrapped loin (to say nothing of the heavenly rye gnocchi accompaniment). The spaghetti squash (not currently on the menu) is baked into a soufflé-like pillow preparation instead of a pasta impersonation. And then there’s lunch, where chef Phillip Schaaf has created one of the most solid rotations of daily specials offered anywhere in Arkansas. Wednesday’s fried chicken with macaroni and cheese is my favorite, but the duck Andouille sausage and the chicken fried steak all have their own admirers.
For high quality food, there are few restaurants in Little Rock at South on Main’s level. That level of success continues into the bar program, where bar manager David Burnette’s cocktail menu has been praised by aficionados and competing bar workers alike. The fiery Rosemary’s Baby and the Whiskey Rebellion are probably the best known, but a simple old fashioned Gin Cocktail Burnette mixed for me one night was one of the best mixed drinks I’ve ever enjoyed. Burnette’s passion extends to his ice, where his exacting standards on something as mundane as frozen water are a testament to the passion he brings to the job. And South on Main might be just as well known for its desserts. Pastry chef Matt Lowman is one of the best around, and his desserts are worth the visit by themselves. His peanut butter cookies are probably my favorite, but I’ve also been amazed by his doughnuts, jars and pies.
There is hardly an aspect of South on Main’s kitchen or beverage program that I can criticize, but there is more to the restaurant than food and drink. South on Main has also become a cultural hub of Little Rock. In 2014, the restaurant hosted more than 50 events. Many of those were concerts through the Local Live series, allowing Little Rock musicians a high-profile venue they might not other wise enjoy. Three Art of the Bar events gave artists and craftsmen a new marketplace to sell their products to a guaranteed crowd. The No Kid Hungry dinner (that I regrettably missed) featured guest chefs from the city and region and raised tens of thousands of dollars for charity. It’s impossible to ignore the impact this restaurant had in 2014 not just on the city’s food scene, but also on Little Rock’s art, music and nonprofit sectors.
In my mind, all of this is enough for me to say South on Main was tops in Little Rock for 2014, but there’s something else for me that makes this honor even more appropriate. Other cities have a definite culinary identity that Little Rock has long lacked. Chicago has deep-dish pizza. Austin has Texas-style barbecue. Philadelphia has the cheesesteak sandwich. San Francisco has sourdough bread. And so on and so on. Up until now, Little Rock hasn’t had that instantly identifiable culinary style, but I believe that is changing. Little Rock is becoming a city that excels in southern cuisine (particularly Delta food) that is simple and accessible, yet still made with a high level of craftsmanship. And to me, no restaurant is doing that quite like South on Main. The food, the atmosphere, the service all let you know one thing for certain: this is Little Rock. In fact, a friend of mine once commented, “South on Main just feels like our city.” It’s hard to disagree. South on Main has put together food, drink and culture in a way that is unprecedented in Little Rock, pushing forward not just the culinary scene, but also the city itself. It’s why South on Main is the Little Rock Foodcast’s choice for best restaurant in 2014.
Runner up: Big Orange Midtown
Second runner up: Kemuri
Third runner up: Table 28
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 restaurateur – Tomas Böhm (The Pantry, The Pantry Crest)
Best chef – Scott Rains, Table 28