The Louis Lexi Adams

There are some travel destinations where the accommodations and culinary offerings are secondary to the reason you’re visiting. In my humble opinion, Wilson — a tiny Mississippi County community whose town square boasts beautiful Tudor-style architecture with red bricks and interesting rooflines — isn’t exactly one of those places, at least not yet. 

Once a booming cotton town, Wilson’s been rebranding itself as a luxury tourist destination since it was purchased by wealthy farm magnate Gaylon Lawrence Jr. in 2010. So far, though, there’s only enough to do to last you about a day. What that means is that The Louis (a swanky 16-room hotel that opened in May 2023), The Grange (a coffee shop and breakfast/lunch eatery that debuted around the same time) and the Wilson Cafe (a classy but not too fancy farm-to-table restaurant) are the main events in Wilson, unless you’re in the market for one of The Louis’ high-end guided pheasant, quail and waterfowl hunting trips. There’s also a six-hole golf course called Tin House just a few minutes away, but, at $200/person, it wasn’t quite in our budget either. A man I spoke with over the phone said it was “cooler than average,” so golfers: Do what you will with that information.

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Lexi Adams
Wilson

I’m told that Wilson is the site of several festivals as well as an occasional concert series, and that there are frequent musical performances on Friday and Saturday nights in the hotel bar and restaurant patio, but nothing of the sort was underway during my and a friend’s quiet Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning there in early May. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though, if what you’re looking for is a short, uncomplicated getaway with some upscale flourishes (or if your final destination is Memphis and you’re just wanting a substantive pit stop).

Signs of The Louis’ elegance wafted my direction well before we arrived. For one, I’ve never before encountered a booking questionnaire asking whether I might need a “feather free room” and proffering luxurious add-ons like wines and waters “from around the world.” I also received an email the morning of my stay, inquiring about my favorite treats and checking in on my “preferred room temperature.”  

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Lexi Adams
Charcuterie board at The Louis

I pride myself on being a low-maintenance traveler, but with some encouragement from my editor, I decided to ask for a couple of things from the list of extras. One old-fashioned and a charcuterie board, please. “And I just happen to love chocolate chip cookies,” I added to my email to the kind folks at the front desk. 

Sure enough, the drink and plate of assorted finger foods greeted us in our king-sized room, which we were escorted to by a kindly, vest-clad concierge with a syrup-thick Southern accent who grew up in the surrounding area. My first impression of the room was that it was a bit small and unspectacular in light of the $300-plus weekday price point (it’s even more expensive on the weekends), but that hint of disappointment mostly subsided as soon as I moseyed over to the attached rooftop terrace, an expansive patio with both semiprivate nooks and shared areas for conversation with fellow travelers. 

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Patio view from a room at The Louis

There, we found an honor system serve-yourself bar with refrigerated beer and wine, ample seating, firepits and head-high shrubs through which butterflies fluttered and bees buzzed. Minus the heat, it was a choice spot to try out the charcuterie board, an excellent assemblage of cured meats; fresh toasted bread; nutty, funky and spicy cheeses; cranberries and pecans; and pickled delights, like green beans. 

Pro tip regarding the charcuterie board: Unless you want the whole hulking tray to yourself, you can sample from the same offerings at the hotel’s complimentary snack bar. Oh, and those chocolate chip cookies I mentioned? They, too, were waiting for me at the snack bar — outfitted with various beverages, sweet treats and some duck wings — so consider making a bold request of your own.

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Lexi Adams
The Louis’ snazzy bar

Excited to learn that a stay at The Louis comes with a free drink at the snazzy hotel bar — a cozy semi-circle of aged green title housed in a high-ceilinged lounge behind where you check in — we were much less jazzed to be told right afterward that they were absent a bartender that night, presumably due to it being a low-traffic weekday. We were instructed to instead snag our pro bono spirits over at the neighboring restaurant. 

I’d call the switcheroo a blessing in disguise, given just how good the cocktails at the Wilson Cafe were. Foregoing a ridiculously long wine list, I ordered the Dragon Fruit Margarita, the special of the day and the kind of drink that’s decidedly sweet yet doesn’t make you feel childish for choosing something so saccharine. Lots of chunks of fresh fruit. My travel companion got the Blue Highway Orchid, a florid and fizzy mixture of ginger beer, peach bitters and Crème de Violette (among other things) that she compared to what one wishes it’d be like to bite into a Tide Pod — bright, energizing and nonpoisonous.

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Blue Highway Orchid (left) and Dragon Fruit Margarita (right) at the Wilson Cafe

A charming quirk of the Wilson Cafe’s dinnertime menu Tuesday-Saturday (they also serve lunch Thursday-Friday and brunch Saturday-Sunday) is that it includes a deviled eggs special that changes every day. During our visit, they were hawking a version topped with small pieces of fried catfish, tartar sauce and pickled onions. Surprisingly tasty. 

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The main menu leans in the upscale Southern direction, with a fair bit of fried representation, but there are some notable exceptions, like the Bourbon Molasses Salmon with Smoked Strawberry Salsa. It’s a light dish served with rice and roasted vegetables, but the rich salsa pushes it in an indulgent direction, namely because the strawberries are macerated. Truthfully, it was a touch too much for my tastes, but still an interesting flavor combination when paired with the fish. 

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Braised Short Rib at the Wilson Cafe

The entree about which I had no reservations, however, is the Braised Short Rib. Accompanied by peas, super-smooth mashed potatoes and a powerful bacon-onion jam, it was both comforting and sophisticated, a description I’d also apply to the Bread Pudding, which we were told was made with croissant dough. After tasting it, I’m not sure why anyone would choose to make the dessert any other way.

We finished up a little before 9 p.m., and were immediately struck by the feeling that Wilson had nothing to offer us at this hour, especially with the hotel bar closed. When we asked the waiter if she knew of somewhere we could still get a drink, she warily suggested Ish’s Bassett Bar, a “redneck” dive about 5 miles from Wilson. When we asked the concierge about the recommendation, the word “redneck” also came up. We were intrigued.

Lexi Adams
Bread Pudding at the Wilson Cafe

Spacious and relatively quiet (there was no music until we ponied up a dollar to play Tracy Byrd’s “Drinkin’ Bone” on the digital jukebox), Ish’s turned out to be a decent place to shoot some pool, drink a couple of Miller Lites and contemplate the strangeness of Wilson’s proximity to an otherwise very rural existence, as long as you’re OK with being subjected to some rambling conversations with middle-aged barflies. The man who paid us the most attention was pretty harmless, but notably there’s a sign outside that we didn’t notice until the next morning that reads “Trump 2020: Make Liberals Cry Again.” 

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Back in the hotel room, we tinkered with a confusingly customizable thermostat and then slept very well in a bed that was somehow both firm and soft at the same time, barely noticing each other. I can’t say it made a tangible difference, but, according to The Louis’ website, the linens are made of cotton that’s sourced from Wilson, which is pretty neat. 

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The Grange

In the morning, we hit up The Grange, located in a big barn across the street from the town square and over some train tracks but still within walking distance. Every day but Sunday, they’ve got coffees, pastries and pies, homemade ice cream, breakfast and lunch (and they offer dinner on Mondays, when the Wilson Cafe is closed). 

The Farmer’s Breakfast (two eggs, sausage or bacon, potatoes and toast or a biscuit) was solid but nothing special, except for the potatoes, which were decadently fried with the kind of breading you might expect on a hushpuppy. On the other hand, the Avocado Toast — smothered with cherry tomatoes, pickled cucumbers and onions, radishes, arugula, sherry vinaigrette and pumpkin seeds — was one of the best dishes of the trip. 

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Hampson Archeological Museum

Thoroughly stuffed once again, it only took us about an hour to check out all of the major activities around the square. Other than The Louis and something called the Wilson Motor Club (it hasn’t opened yet, but it’s slated to have a small collection of vintage cars), there’s just a post office, the Wilson Theater, a few shops and the Hampson Archeological Museum (open Wednesday-Sunday), which houses a collection of aboriginal artifacts that were excavated from a single plantation site near Wilson and is easily the most interesting stop. Though not an enormous facility, there’s some gorgeous pottery, and everything at the museum comes from a single group of people who lived in the area from A.D. 1400 to 1650.

We tried to stop by Tom Beckbe, an outdoor and hunting apparel store, but they were closed despite it being within their advertised business hours. Other than the Wilson Pharmacy (a literal pharmacy), that left us with White’s Mercantile, a small franchise started by Holly Williams — country musician Hank Williams Jr.’s daughter — that bills itself as “a general store for the modern tastemaker.” If your cup of tea is cute, high-end Southern decor that’s probably made in smaller batches than Hobby Lobby goods, but not quite artisanal; or you’re looking for a gift for someone who likes hats, stickers and stationery that say things like “Praise the lard!” or “Dolly Parton for President,” then you’ll love it. Other than Wilson merch, though, I didn’t see anything local. It feels like they plucked a store out of Nashville and just dropped it in the middle of nowhere without much context. For better or worse, that’s a bit like what’s happening with Wilson as a whole. 

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Where to stop on the way

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Johnny Cash Boyhood Home

Johnny Cash Boyhood Home
110 Center Drive, Dyess

Sometimes, the state where a celebrity is born claims them confidently, without much regard for the fact that they barely lived there at all. That’s not the case for Johnny Cash, who spent the first 18 years of his life in Arkansas, and ages 3-18 on the same 40-acre plot in Dyess. To visit the modest but picturesque two-bedroom house shared by the family of nine — which opened to the public in 2014 after being meticulously restored by Arkansas State University — is truly to understand the circumstances that allowed for Cash’s worldview to emerge. The house is set up to feel like you’re walking right into the ’30s, complete with Cash’s mother’s original upright piano, and every item and piece of furniture that wasn’t actually owned by the Cashes is period-accurate. Even if you’re not a Cash fanatic, the home and its accompanying museum have much to bestow about the Dyess Colony, a 500-plot agriculture development in which Cash’s family resided, launched in 1934 as a New Deal effort to jumpstart the lives of Great Depression families. Located about 20 minutes west of Wilson, the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home offers tours every hour on the hour 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Saturday.

Fuel for the drive

Jackrabbit Dairy Bar
511 Front St. SW, Lonoke

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Chili dog, chicken tenders, fries and cheese dip at Jackrabbit Dairy Bar

For some reason, all of the combos at Jackrabbit Dairy Bar in Lonoke — a cash-only establishment with a drive-thru and a walk-up counter with an awning covering picnic table sitting — come with a sizable side of cheese dip. Thankfully, their version of the stuff, a Velveeta-heavy yet not overly thick concoction with hints of paprika and cumin, is excellent. You can order chips, but it seems like most people just dip their fries. The cheese dip is also slathered onto their chili dogs, which include a heaping portion of coleslaw. Add to that a milkshake or frosted Coke (a float, but blended) and you’ve got a creamy fantasy that I can’t responsibly recommend for the drive to Wilson, but might just be the perfect way to push you through the final 30 minutes of driving back to Little Rock. Jackrabbit Dairy Bar is open 10 a.m.-7 p.m. on weekdays.

Whilma’s Filipino Restaurant
601 E. Race Ave., Searcy

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Whilma’s Filipino Restaurant

As is the case with many Arkansans, Whilma’s in Searcy was my first introduction to Filipino cuisine. From the second I tried our appetizer — Lumpia, or Filipino fried spring rolls — I was converted. Made for dipping into a sweet red sauce, the rolls are small and tightly packed with flavorful pork or veggies, but the real magic lies in the texture. I don’t know if these things are constructed with twice as much wrapping as usual, but, biting in, you’ll discover multiple coats of fried goodness, dark and crispy on the outside and medium crunchy on the layer below. The entree I’d recommend most heartily is the adobo. The menu says that it’s chicken or pork braised in garlic, soy sauce and vinegar, but I’d liken the generous broth that it’s served in to a complex stew. I can also attest to the greatness of pancit Canton, a veggie-forward stir fry that won’t be too unfamiliar to Chinese food lovers, but one whose sauce is probably creamier and more luxurious than what you’re used to. We didn’t get a chance to try the yellow curry, but that’s what I’m planning on having next time. Whilma’s is open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.