This summer, once the heritage-breed chickens, ducks and turkeys he and his girlfriend are raising on 20 acres in Alexander are large enough to be butchered, Jonathan Wilkins will have perhaps the only true farm-to-table restaurant in Central Arkansas.
OK, restaurant may be a stretch. A dive bar with an old shuffle-board table for a bar top, the ashes of a dead man displayed prominently in a Busch Light bottle and 36 years of booze-shaded history can never be known as anything other than a bar. But in the last eight months, Wilkins has done his damndest to make White Water Tavern known as a bar that serves exceptionally good food.
What will you find at White Water? The usual bar food, prepared with unusual care. A cheeseburger, made from Arkansas beef that’s marinated in some secret concoction and topped with Honeysuckle Lane-brand jalapeno cheese from Rose Bud, that is a challenger for the best in town. Hand-cut fries prepared, as all fries should be, brasserie-style — blanched first and then fried. Crisp on the outside and impossibly creamy on the inside, they too are a challenger for the best in town. A bologna sandwich, called the Double-Wide, built of a thick cut of smoked bologna, a fried egg, Sriracha mayonnaise and Honeysuckle cheddar cheese on Wilkins’ own beer-bread. It is, without question, the greatest bologna sandwich ever made.
When he was younger, Wilkins, 29, dreamed of training to become a French-style chef, but his path to the White Water kitchen has been more about experience gained through the course of trying to pay the bills.
“I’ve played music for the last 15 years, which means I’ve spent years working in kitchens and in construction,” he said.
The construction experience has come in handy with his fledgling farm and ranch, which he and his girlfriend Marianne Nolley call Vader View Acres.
“Mostly out of necessity, but also out of interest, we grow our own produce. We raise our own birds. We slaughter our own hogs. I go bow hunting. We process our own deer. A lot of times that’s a way to cut down on how much you’re spending on food.
“What it’s really exemplified for me is this whole locavore movement is what our grandparents did. We’re fortunate enough to live in a state where we’re not far removed from that — almost everyone has a grandma who grows her own tomatoes or cans her own stuff or has land handed down to them.”
Wilkins hadn’t worked a restaurant jobs in six years, though, until last year, when he spent three months at The Root Cafe. After that stint, he took a month off and then took charge of the kitchen at White Water, a bar owned by two of his closest friends, Matt White and Sean Hughes.
For the most part, he’s been a one-man show. He does nearly all the prep work, the cooking and the cleaning. Until recently, when he decided to cut back on late night hours and work towards expanding lunch, he said he was working as much as 120 hours a week. He was in the bar’s tiny kitchen so often he regularly crashed upstairs.
But hard work has paid off. Word has spread. Food has already been a hit at the bar in the evenings and now lunch on Friday — the only day Wilkins has been offering it — is so successful, he’s occasionally had to turn people away. He’s now considering bringing in a little kitchen help, and, in the coming weeks, he’ll extend lunch service to every weekday.
For all of Wilkins’ emphasis on local fare and chef-style riffs on pub grub (last week he had a Brie and bacon burger on special), he thinks he’s been able to connect with people who might not normally go for locavore, gourmet fare (including everyone from bar regulars to the Republican legislators who’ve made White Water a weekly lunch stop) because he presents his without pretense, something a lot of people associate with such food, fairly or not.
“During the growing season, we’ll be looking at a situation where the ground beef on the burger I’m serving is from Arkansas and everything else is from within 30 miles of the bar. Where I grew the tomatoes, or I canned the pickled okra that goes on a sandwich, or I got the duck eggs out that morning that I’m using on another sandwich. That lends itself to an authenticity that people really desire and crave.
“And that goes together with the appeal of this bar, too: This bar looks old and rickety because it is. This bar is full of people’s memories — people have had some of their best times here and some of their worst times, they’ve made some of the best choices and some of the worst choices.
“When you have that environment, and the bartender knows your name and knows what you want to drink, and you can get a cheeseburger that tastes like it was actually an animal that was walking around, and the guy who cooked it, his whole life rides on whether or not you like that cheeseburger — if I put bad food out there, my light bill doesn’t get paid, I can’t send my mom money at the end of the month — I think that people can tell that I care.”