What to Expect in 2018

The year is almost a wrap and it is time to start thinking 2018. This month we have brought you a list of the biggest restaurant closings as well as a good list of bright spots that have opened in the Little Rock restaurant scene this year. Overall 2017 was a good year for the restaurant scene, most of what left was quickly replaced by something comparable, and the overall quality of gains outweighs the losses.
2018 is shaping up to be another big year for the local restaurant scene. I believe this will be a year along the lines of 2015 where we saw so many quality openings across the city. Here is a list of confirmed openings in 2018, plus a few speculative ones or things we can’t say just yet.
Delta Biscuit Co – We will be glad to get Delta Biscuit going after waiting for nearly two years on it. The biscuit oriented breakfast spot will be a food truck to start, and they will bring a wide variety of toppings, biscuit sandwiches, and other good eats to Little Rock. Expect a spring launch party and then they will roll into daily sets.
Casey’s BBQ – Yes, that Casey’s BBQ. We have confirmed that it is, at least in spirit, related to the Casey’s BBQ that closed in 2005 on Reservoir Rd. This is going into the old Arkansas Burger Co. location on Cantrell. No word on an opening date, but it should take long.
Cathead’s Diner – Donnie Ferneau and Kelli Marks are teaming up for this breakfast oriented diner spot in the East Village district. It will be fun to watch how this plays out from a number of angles, mostly watching two strong personalities in the kitchen together. Regardless the food should be good, Donnie has been talking breakfast for several years now, so it is clear he has some well developed recipes in mind. As long as the city is willing to embrace the East Village area, which I am not 100% sold on, this spot should do fine. Expected opening in Spring.
Poke Places – For simplicity sake I am going to combine these into one. Mostly because I think only one makes it out of 2018 alive, more on that later though. Aloha Poke (old Lulav location) and Poke Hula (old Brown Sugar Bakery location) are both going in downtown within reasonable distance of each other. Poke, which is a raw fish salad created in Hawaii, has been gaining popularity in larger cities. There are a handful of restaurants in LR that have put it on the menus with mixed results, but never a restaurant here dedicated to poke. I don’t personally think Little Rock can support two dedicated poke restaurants, especially not within a mile of each other. But we will find out. Both should open in early spring.
Dust Bowl Lanes/Fassler Hall – Technically Dust Bowl Lanes, a high end retro bowling alley, is going through a soft open, but I haven’t received my invite so it doesn’t exists yet. Regardless there is a lot to look forward to with it and next door Fassler Hall which is a German style biergarten. Things like this are crucial to further developing downtown as a destination, and having people pick downtown as a place to live. Dust Bowl Lanes opens to the public at the first of the year, Fassler Hall shouldn’t be far behind.
Ira’s – Ira’s, along with AW Lins below, are part of the next wave of main street development. The development has been slowly inching the way up Main, but adding these two in makes the 300 block of Main a showcase for what can happen with a concentrated area of development in downtown. Ira’s journey from Park Hill to downtown has been long, in part due to the red tape in renovating a historic building. We assume the menu will be similar though to Ira’s Park Hill. It should be open sometime in early spring.
AW Lins Downtown – Next door to Ira’s on Main is AW Lin’s downtown expansion. The owners have always been expansion minded, breaking off from a small chain out of Nashville to form their own concept in AW Lins, so the expansion is no surprise. What will be a surprise though is the menu changes that they will undergo. The plan is to better integrate their authentic Chinese menu with the standard menu. The authentic Chinese has been a bright spot in the restaurant, especially as the tastes in Little Rock for authentic cuisine has grown. Expect this open mid to late spring.
Rock Town Distillery – Rock Town moving was not a shock at all, they toyed with the idea already earlier in the year. Still I think a few people were surprised at the SOMA location, directly across from Community Bakery. It seems to fit their audience, and the growing SOMA scene, perfectly. Plus the additional size will allow a more public facing experience which is something they have talked about for a long time. No word officially on the move in date, but due to the sheer scope of moving all the equipment expect this to happen in stages beginning in late winter and wrapping up close to the fall.
Core SOMA – Technically the second public house for Core in the Little Rock area, although I wouldn’t be surprised to see the South Main location for Core be the central Arkansas flagship for the brand. The space, located on the 1200 block of Main (one block before South on Main) should allow Core to finally develop an audience in Little Rock, something the Argenta location has struggled to do. The surrounding area in South Main has been begging for a brewery. Plus Rock Town moving across the street sets up an interesting after hours scene when combined with existing South on Main, Raduno, and Midtown. Expected opening is very soon after the first of the year.
Abbi’s Teas – I’ve know Abbi Siler off and on for several years and the girl is more knowledgeable about tea than almost anyone. She has had a number of tea ventures in the past, but the tea house in Hillcrest is going to be her first run at a service industry operation. Still, for a first time owner I think this is going to do fine. There are a handful of other spots that do tea in the area, but a dedicated tea house is something long requested in Little Rock. Opens in February.

Other Unconfirmed Happenings

Finally, at this point most of the openings for 2018 we do not know about yet or can’t quite say. That said we are good at keeping an ear out for rumblings in the industry. Here are some of the unconfirmed things to look forward to.
Premium Meat Focused Pizza Spot  – We are hearing plans for a restaurant and bar opening mid-spring that will focus on high quality meats for pizzas and salads along with a solid bar line up featuring a large number of taps. Official announcement on this one should come after the first of the year.
Big Moves Downtown – One downtown eatery is in the process of changing ownership, and with that should (hopefully) be a dramatic change in menu quality and focus. Another around the corner is eyeing to leave downtown soon and setup possibly in Hillcrest/Heights. There are also several folks looking up and down main street for possible locations as that area continues to grow in popularity. Finally expect to see at least one more SOMA opening next year.
Helmich Garage – The Helmich Garage property across from Mylo and next to US Pizza has been a hot topic in folks looking for space. It is a highly premium spot and I’ve heard multiple reports of experienced restaurateurs going after the spot. The rumbling has died down a bit, which tells me someone is closing in on officially signing with the property. Keep an eye out.
Afterthought Location – Directly across the street, the old Afterthought location is also potentially back on the market for the right person. I’ve heard numerous pitches from folks looking to acquire this property, which is possibly the best location in all of Hillcrest.
Popular NWA Restaurants Eye Little Rock – I spend a lot of time in NWA, and I’ve heard increased rumbles from several restaurateurs in the area about looking at Little Rock for expansion. The food market is starting to tighten in NWA after years of extreme growth, so it is a logical growth area. I think we could see 2-3 places make announcements on moving an NWA location to LR this year.
Brewery Expansions – Thanks to the dramatic growth in craft beer almost every brewery in town is looking at some sort of expansion to either increase capacity, seating, or both. Blue Canoe was the first major mover in this area, with their new location near the airport. Others have been working on the move for some time in various capacities. I would not be surprised to see 4 breweries have some type of expansion this year.
Another Rooftop Bar/Restaurant – Agasi 7 has proven to be wildly popular, despite some inconsistencies with food early on. It shows a big demand for downtown rooftop dining. Agasi 7 was the first city permit approved for rooftop dining, I have heard as many as 10 permits were requested after theirs was approved for similar concepts. All so far have been rejected for various reasons. The longer Agasi 7 operates without issues the more likely a permit is accepted, I expect this to happen sometime this year with another fall-ish opening for a rooftop lounge of some sort, possibly closer to the river.
Argenta – There is a huge development effort going right now in Argenta. I know at least one of those has a restaurant built into the development plans. Knowing the team behind it they will seek a local restaurant with a successful track record. I’ve heard of one such group that fits the bill eyeing that area in the past, and they are planning some more Little Rock expansions after they wrap up with two big ones in NWA. Not naming names, and I have no proof. Just putting a few pieces together.

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