For most, when they hear city name Bentonville, a couple of things comes to mind with Walmart being one of them. The chances are that if you have shopped there as a regular, you're familiar with the story of the discount retailer’s founder Sam Walton who built the family legacy around value and price starting in 1962.
My trip to this Northwestern city of Arkansas last fall wasn’t centered around Walmart’s home offices, as for many hoping to close a deal to get their products on the shelves. Instead, it was to discover the vibrancy and rebirth, as I would say, that Bentonville has been going through over the last ten years. As I discovered, the Bentonville that I thought I knew from a distance, was not the Bentonville I found while there. What I found was a city making a name for itself sans its largest employer. A city actively changing as cities, states and the world around it change. Diversity is rising in what Bentonville has to offer from what you do, where you eat and who you know.
Diversity in the Making
“There is certainly a brand, there is an experience, and there is an expectation of culinary excellence that sets the bar for Bentonville as well as Northwest Arkansas,” says Daniel Hintz, founder of the Velocity Group. Hintz played a pivotal role in guiding the renaissance of Bentonville’s 1,765-acre downtown district that includes a growing art, entertainment, culinary and entrepreneurial scene. At one time there was just one restaurant. Now, the decision is whether to have Italian at Tavola Trattoria, calamari at the Flying Fish Seafood, breakfast at The Buttered Biscuit or to grab a consciously brewed cup of coffee at Onyx Coffee Lab. With more than 30 restaurants representing various cuisines, take comfort in knowing you have options; lots of them.
Hintz and others also recognized that if the city wanted to attract and engage the imagination of the folks who wanted to be a part of the Bentonville experience, the crowd of people they imagined, the food and culinary had to be amplified.
I have eaten at hundreds of restaurants over my lifetime as well as written about plenty of them. I can honestly say that none has impressed me the way The Preacher’s Son did. The renovation of First Christian Church into one of Bentonville's unique culinary additions is cause for a visit. A preacher's son himself, chef Matthew Cooper's seasonal and rustic menu selections are enjoyed throughout the sanctuary, aka the dining room, that includes a bar with champagne gold brick. The art on the glass windows gives the church modern charm while maintaining the integrity of the original architecture.
The other reason why I was so impressed is the Undercroft Bar that is beneath the restaurant. Known to have some of the best drinks in town, this is definitely a spot to kick back and chill following dinner or in lieu of. Discover the unexpected in this “seductive” and “hidden” cocktail bar that epitomizes one of the types of “amplified” experiences I am sure Hintz was talking about.
More Than Food
Food and art collide at the 21c Museum Hotel Bentonville, a boutique hotel that is also a contemporary art museum, cultural civic center and home to The Hive restaurant. More than 12,000 square feet of art exhibit space is on the property. Walk an exhibit or two before enjoying drinks or a meal at the restaurant where you’ll get to taste the culinary identity of Arkansas at its best.
From art to aviation, don’t let time fly during your visit without a meal at Louise (pun intended). Owned by the same restaurant group that owns The Preacher’s Son, the Ropeswing Group, this all-day café named after Iris Louise McPhetridge Thaden, a pioneering aviator, serves breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner. Located at the Fieldhouse at Thaden Field, dine inside or get a closer look outside watching planes take off and land as you enjoy a taste of the South while sipping on your first or second mimosa.
Another experience that is has caught national attention is Bentonville’s 8th Street Market. The community-focused food hub was the first stop on my itinerary after I arrived and set a great precedent for what was to follow. The market is more than the name suggests as one of the city’s ultimate hang-out spots from Bike Rack Brewing Co., chocolate makers Markam & Fitz and the textile studio Hillfolk to restaurants YeYo’s Mexican Grill and Kalye Manila. The seasonal farmer's market takes place from April through October, and the food trucks offering tasty bites are a sure culinary attraction.
When food and fun are on the agenda, The Holler, also at 8th Street Market, is sure to fit the bill. With a life-size shuffleboard game to get the party going, give it your best shot over great drinks and eats.
The African-American Experience in Bentonville
With Walmart attracting new Bentonville residents straight out of college, there is a young and diverse population to serve in the city as well.
Jasmine Hudson, who moved to Bentonville six years ago after being recruited by the retailer, has witnessed the city’s transformation firsthand during her time there. Originally from Cincinnati, she says, “As far as Bentonville goes, it is very, very welcoming overall. A lot of the population is not from here so what I really enjoy about the area is you get a lot of different walks of life and different perspectives.”
Hudson and her friend Jae started the Instagram page Jasmine and Jae NWA which highlights life in the Bentonville through the lens of two young African-Americans; a perspective I was definitely interested in learning about. “The reason why Jae and I created Jasmine and Jae NWA was because we really didn’t see ourselves in these spaces as far as marketing material and we were just like, ‘Are we welcomed in these spaces? Can we really just get there and enjoy ourselves?’ So how do we get there and kind of share the word with our community as well as just overall newcomers and young professionals,” says Hudson.
Having an insider's view is always a good thing when somewhere new for the first time. Naturally, I had to ask about her recommendations for dining of which a few noted included Williams Soul Food, Thai Basil and an off-the-grid Trinidadian gem that you have to be in the know to partake. If you're not, just another reason to follow Hudson on social media.
Investing in Culinary’s Next Generation
While the revitalization of downtown Bentonville, as well as the addition of the 8th Street Market, are both examples of success, there is another project that also makes the city proud. Brightwater: A Center for the Study of Food opened in 2017 with a unique approach to the culinary arts. Having the goal of developing the world’s next generation of culinary leaders, individuals and students enrolling in courses or degree programs have access to world-class training at any stage of their food journey.
Brightwater operates in what was once the Tyson Foods processing plant with highlights of the 27,500-square-foot center to include affordable programs ($75 per credit for in-state and just $125 for out-of-state), demonstration, culinary and pastry kitchens, a beverage classroom, a greenhouse and an outdoor garden. In addition, one-of-a-kind classes such as farming, seasonal cooking, mixology and fermentation are offered throughout the year, making Brightwater a culinary school worth putting on one’s radar.
With visions of an exciting future ahead of it, Bentonville is a great example of how, although slow, change that benefits the greater good is possible. It is unrealistic to think that the change is embraced by everybody and as Hudson points out, a little bit of resistance does exist. However, overall, she says, “Where the direction of Bentonville is going is more so diverse, more so inclusive and then there is just trying to figure out how to get there. I thoroughly enjoy it and it is exponentially changing every single year and because of that growth and because of the development, that is why I stay.”
If I have your attention so far about Bentonville, stay tuned as there is more to share. Meanwhile, be sure to follow Visit Bentonville on Twitter and Instagram and reach out online to request a travel guide.