When the news dropped in 2021 that chef and cookbook author John Currence was bringing his restaurant franchise Big Bad Breakfast to Little Rock, former Arkansas Times editor Lindsey Millar peeked his head over my cubicle and said something to the effect of: “This is big news.”
A New Orleans native and James Beard award winner, Currence opened Big Bad Breakfast in Oxford, Mississippi, in 2008. The restaurant developed a reputation for its decadent breakfast fare, and Millar said the highlight of his trip to Oxford in 2021 was his meal there. He ordered the Creole Omelet, which he said was “impossibly fluffy” and that the ingredients and execution “were just about flawless.”
Operating partner Ben Brainard opened Little Rock’s first Big Bad Breakfast on Bowman Road in June 2022. Jim, Tommy and Jake Keet of JTJ Restaurants LLC are minority owners. Fresh Hospitality, a Nashville-based restaurant investment group with whom the Keets have partnered on brands including Taziki’s Mediterranean Cafe and Waldo’s Chicken & Beer, partnered with Currence to bring a Big Bad Breakfast to Birmingham, Alabama, in 2012. Big Bad Breakfast has since opened Tennessee locations in Nashville and Memphis and a restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina.
In October, Brainard opened the breakfast chain’s second Arkansas store at 306 Main St. in the former Soul Fish space in downtown Little Rock. It’s the brand’s 19th outlet.
The new downtown location has a midcentury vibe, which feels fitting for the area. A long bar runs nearly the entire length of the dining room floor, and several large windows (the old fading “Dundee” sign from Dundee Smart Clothes still remains top center) face downtown’s Main Street. Shelby Cotton, the designer behind South Main Street’s Raduno, worked with Brainard to give the space street appeal and make it feel like a ’70s diner reminiscent of his grandmother’s cooking, he said.
I recently walked from the Eat Arkansas office to meet Millar at the downtown store for my annual performance review. Millar’s now the owner/CEO of the new woodworking company Goofball Industries, but he is still lurking around the pages of the Arkansas Times.
It was lunchtime so Millar ordered the Oyster po’boy with fries. When our food arrived, I was carrying on about the sad state of the Arkansas Times refrigerator, and Millar was intently listening while skillfully pouring ketchup onto his plate. While nodding his head forward in agreement that the Arkansas Times has nothing good to drink, he grabbed a bottle of green hot sauce off the table (JC Hot Sauce) and carefully folded it into the ketchup before mixing it all together with a French fry, which I’d later find out was an absolute pro move. Millar never disappoints. He said the po’boy is perhaps Little Rock’s finest.
I ordered the Yard Work skillet plate “conceived in love and baptized in a touch of butter,” the menu says. The mixture of scrambled eggs, mushrooms, spinach, tomatoes, smashed avocado and Swiss cheese tasted almost too good to be true. I’ve had eggs mixed with veggies before, and it can be bland, but this medley was seasoned better than any previous iteration I’ve had. Maybe it’s the butter. I’m going to start using more butter in my cooking in 2024. #healthgoals
The Jack Benny I picked at random on a subsequent visit turned out to be one of my favorite dishes I’ve had this year. Rather than the traditional eggs Benedict served on an English muffin, the Jack Benny’s poached eggs are served atop a square crispy hash brown cake with wilted spinach, hollandaise sauce and sliced ham.
The hollandaise had great flavor with notes of Dijon mustard, and the ham is just about perfect (Big Bad Breakfast’s bacon and ham come from its own processing facility known as the FatBack Pig Project in Eva, Alabama). The hash brown cake is the perfect substitute for the English muffin and one I now prefer.
I also enjoyed the Screamin’ Demon fried chicken sandwich featuring pickle-brined chicken, Duke’s mayo, lettuce, tomato, pickle and American cheese. “Chef loves this like his first born child,” the menu says. It was also another opportunity to mix together JC Hot Sauce with ketchup, Lindsey Millar-style.
Brainard said at a media breakfast before the Main Street opening that because of the restaurant’s name, people don’t always know that they serve lunch. He said he thinks this new location gives the brand a great opportunity to usher in the downtown lunch crowd and hopes to entice them with chalkboard specials.
“The revitalization of downtown is something we’re excited about,” Brainard said. “There’s going to be a lot more people walking around down here, and it really made this make a lot of sense.”
Brainard said he is planning to eventually expand into Northwest Arkansas once he and Currence are satisfied with the progress downtown and on Bowman.
At the media breakfast, Currence said that it’s been challenging to admit that the restaurant has become a chain. But he said they’re trying to “build a case for being an anti-chain chain.”
He said he allows his operators a certain amount of freedom to use local products and create dining rooms that don’t look like carbon copies of previous stores.
“We can be a chain and still hold the exact same standards that we always have,” Brainard said.
I might’ve doubted Brainard if I’d heard him say that before I tried the food.