The opening of the Murphy Arts District (MAD) in El Dorado will draw crowds to see big-name musical acts for small-ticket prices during a five-day celebration in late September.
During the five-day celebration, more than 30 artists will play at various venues in the district. Tickets are on sale now for concerts with Brad Paisley, Natasha Bedingfield, Train, X Ambassadors, ZZ Top, Ludacris, Migos and Smokey Robinson. Some of the concerts have already sold out.
MAD executives plan to keep people coming back to El Dorado by providing a home for the arts, top-tier entertainment and farm-to-table dining to the town of about 20,000 people.
“If we’re going to do it, we’re going to have to turn this into a tourism destination,” MAD Vice President and General Manager Dan Smith says. “El Dorado has to be a place where people want to come, not only to see a concert, but to enjoy a good ‘foodie’ experience.”
Smith says MAD has to have standards “equal to or better than” anything people would find in nearby cultural hubs like Monroe, Shreveport, Dallas, Little Rock and Fayetteville.
Smith’s domain is the hospitality operations of MAD, including the Griffin Restaurant, a farm-to-table establishment housed in a historic building that was once a showroom for Model T Fords. The restaurant is at the center of MAD, literally and figuratively. He also is in charge of operations in the Griffin Music Hall and the MAD Amphitheater.
Smith is committed to local sourcing of fresh products, the origin of the label ‘farm to table.’
“The goal for us it has to be either grown, raised or made in Arkansas or within 200 miles of the venue,” he says. The 200-mile rule will allow the restaurant to source food from some parts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, while still maintaining its Arkansas roots and helping sustain the regional economy.
Smith picked 200 miles as the limit because he wanted to be able to get the food to El Dorado within hours of the local farms.
“Could I order it today and [have] it be on my table tomorrow?” he asks. “200 miles lets me do that.”
One thing that isn’t covered by the 200-mile rule? Fresh seafood.
“We’re getting our fresh seafood from the Gulf of Mexico and [Chef John E. Peters III] has got somebody who can get it to us in the same day,” Smith says.
Smith and Peters are working with food supplier Ben E. Keith, as well as local farms and groups like Grass Roots Farmers Cooperative, Terre Noire Farms and Ralston Family Farms.
“Right now, there’s a lot food that’s being grown in Arkansas that’s getting sent to other states. All we’re trying to figure out is how to get us into that supply chain,” Smith says. “We want organic, fresh-out-of-the-earth product.”
Once the Griffin Restaurant opens to the public on Sept. 28, it will stay open seven days a week, Smith says. Southerners will feel at home with the food, but it will also taste like something new, Peters and Smith said.
“It’s heavily based off of the South and regional likes,” Peters says. “And then you have a lot of Creole influence because I’m from Louisiana and trained in New Orleans… we’re going to take recipes the locals may be used to and take them to another level.”
The dishes do double duty; food isn’t just served in the restaurant, it’s also served in the district’s music venues.
“Everything that we’re doing from food and beverage has to also translate into the concessions aspect of it,” Smith says.
Highlights on the opening menu include the Razorback and Mac, pulled pork nachos, house-made charcuterie and jambalaya. The Razorback and Mac consists of macaroni and cheese made with Cavatappi, Muenster, Havarti and smoked cheddar cheeses topped with pulled pork. The pulled pork is smoked in-house and all of the Griffin sauces will be house-made.
The value that the restaurant places on freshness and quality doesn’t stop at the food; the eatery also offers wine, beer and cocktails. Smith says that Zach Jackson, the restaurant manager, collaborated with a sommelier when formulating the extensive wine list. Some craft beer and spirit offerings, like Lost 40 Day Drinker and Rock Town Bourbon, are made in the Natural State.
As for the cocktails, you won’t find sour mix at the Griffin.
“Everything is made with fresh fruits and juices,” Smith says. “We’ll have baskets of limes, lemons, oranges on the back bar and that’s what we’ll be using to make each drink.”
“All the cocktails are craftmade,” Smith says. “Handcrafted cocktail, farm-to-table restaurant. It all means fresh. It means that we’re using recipes that are not somebody else’s flavor profiles.”
As for the decor of the Griffin Restaurant, two of the walls are made of glass. A mural of a streetscape will adorn one wall with partner farms listed, and memorabilia from the building’s time as an automobile business will be scattered throughout the space.
The emblem of the Griffin will appear throughout the restaurant. It will be laser-etched into the wood slat wall to the right of the stage. The Griffin will appear again on the uniforms of the staff. Women will wear a brooch bearing the Griffin logo, and men will have the same image on their cufflinks.