Forbes Just Now Tasting Flavor Little Rock 'Foodies' Have Already Known

It might have been a secret to some (Forbes Travel Guide) but it’s not to Little Rock residents: Little Rock is a “foodie” city.

Forbes Travel Guide correspondent Claire Gibson — who surely must have one of the best jobs on the planet — placed our town alongside Minneapolis; Columbus, Ohio; Asheville, N.C.; and Boulder, Colo., in an article earlier this month about “Five Secret Foodie Cities.”

“Once a land dominated by chain restaurants and barbecue joints, the capital of The Natural State has thoroughly expanded its palate,” Gibson writes. “For high-end fare, the Joël Antunes-helmed Ashley’s at Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Capital Hotel sets the standard with its collection of Southern cuisine done with an international flair. For small plates inspired by European traditions (see: ham and brie crostini), venture to the Hillcrest District for Ciao Baci, or if you’re looking for a more relaxed meal of organic, local ingredients, don’t miss Zaza’s Fine Salad + Wood-Oven Pizza Co. — the prosciutto-arugula pizza pairs well with just about every fresh salad on the menu. But if you’re still hoping for that traditional smoked barbecue during your Little Rock visit, don’t worry — the award-winning Whole Hog Café’s four-bone rib plate will certainly hit the spot.”

Our evidence for Little Rock’s status as a foodie city is the interest expressed in the comings and goings — and the interest in the rumors of the comings and goings — of the region’s restaurants and chefs. Following are a few items:

• Rocket 21 will have its grand opening Friday, Jan. 31, in its new location in a recently constructed building at the site of the Wyndham Hotel, Riverfront Steakhouse and Benihana at 2 Riverfront Place in North Little Rock. That’s according to Frank Fletcher, Arkansas entrepreneur and owner of Rocket 21.

The restaurant, previously Ferneau, decamped at the first of this year somewhat abruptly from its Hillcrest location. Fletcher, inducted last year into the University of Arkansas’ Business Hall of Fame, says the relocated restaurant will have the same chefs, same menu.

As for the old Ice House building on Kavanaugh that housed Rocket 21, Fletcher says on the Rocket 21 website that he has exciting plans that he can’t yet divulge. He told Arkansas Business that it would be “neighborhood friendly,” which can mean a lot of things.

On the day we talked to him, Fletcher was excited about his Riverfront Steakhouse earning a spot on Thrillist’s Best Steakhouses in America. Thrillist, a lifestyle website aimed at men, ranked Riverfront Steakhouse alongside the well-known (Peter Luger in New York and Gibsons in Chicago) and the not so (Farmer Browns Steak House, Waterloo, Neb.).

• BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse has applied for an alcohol permit at 2624 S. Shackleford Road, a good indication it’s planning to open an outpost. BJ’s Restaurants Inc., publicly traded on the Nasdaq, is based in Huntington Beach, Calif., and owns and operates 146 restaurants in California, Texas, Florida, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Washington, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Kentucky, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, New Mexico and Virginia. And soon, apparently, Arkansas.

BJ’s offers full-service casual dining and is best known for its deep-dish pizza and handcrafted beers. A BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse, as Little Rock’s appears to be, gets its beer from one of its own breweries or a “third-party craft brewer of our proprietary recipe beers,” its website says. Calls to BJ’s executives for details hadn’t been returned as of press time.

• Domino’s Pizza has opened what it calls a “pizza theater” store at 17310 Interstate 30 in Benton, the first such in central Arkansas, the chain says in a news release. The 1,610-SF store includes a lobby with built-in tables for placing orders, customer seating, free Wi-Fi, a view of the food-prep area and “the ability to track carryout orders electronically on a flat screen TV.”

“We’re incredibly excited to bring the first pizza theater to the area,” the release quotes Brent Medders, owner of the Benton franchise, as saying.

• Tomas Bohm, who’s bringing to Hillcrest The Pantry Crest, a sister restaurant to his west Little Rock restaurant The Pantry, updates us on remodeling progress at the 722 N. Palm St. house that he bought to house his “rustic European” restaurant. He’s gotten all his permits from the city, construction is underway — he’s having to gut the building — and he hopes to open in May or June, but remains determined not to open until all is ready.

• Donnie Ferneau, the well-known area chef who left Rocket 21 a year ago, says his new venture, about which he’s being discreet, is taking “a bit longer than planned” but it’s still in his sights. We’ve heard talk of a downtown restaurant but no confirmation. We’ll let you know when we do.