By Kristy Alpert | Photography by David Yerby
[dropcap]F[/dropcap]or nearly 40 years, the building at 723 Central Avenue in Hot Springs sat empty, abandoned after its last tenant, Citizens Bank, moved out and shut the ironclad vault one final time. Dating back to 1909, when it opened as the First Federal Bank, the building earned its place on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1979 for its preserved Tiffany brick exterior and possible ties to Al Capone.
However, despite the famous façade and gangsterish gossip, lately it’s what’s taking place inside the building that’s proving to be the structure’s most precious asset. Under the ownership of Dr. Daron Praetzel, the building reopened on May 1, 2018, as Arkansas’ hottest new restaurant, Vault. In place of gold bars and stacks of cash, patrons are presented with a priceless dining experience that begins well before even stepping foot beneath the grand arched doorway as an illuminated letter “V” dances across the pavement to welcome guests inside.
The drama continues to unfold immediately upon entrance, where dim lighting and inlaid brick pillars contrast with clean lines and vibrantly backlit wall features to create an old-world-meets-mid-South ambience. Polished floors glisten upward toward elaborate ceilings featuring angular pendant lights dangling from ornate tiles. The artwork is an eclectic collection, with commissioned pieces from celebrated artist and former Hot Springs gallery owner Lisa Wilson. Local artist Patrick Cunningham was commissioned for a custom mural on the ceiling that resides in the former vault, now the centerpiece and namesake of the entire space. The 9’x9’ vault features a custom glass sliding door that allows for an intimate yet accessible dining space for two to four dinner guests.
“The restaurant lends a really fresh renewed perspective on what it is to be a citizen of the world,” explains Randall Womack, general manager of Vault. “There are elements to this business that I’ve experienced while in Europe, Los Angeles, Chicago or New York. But while there are those that feel international, I really think it brings a fresh perspective without losing its integrity to Hot Springs and to Arkansas.”
A large portion of the menu resonates with the South, where the freshly baked bread is served with a side of sorghum butter, the trout is wrapped in bacon and fresh seafood is served piled high on a plate of smoked cheddar grits. Non-Southern favorites include fresh Nantucket lightship scallops gently pan-seared and served over a smoked carrot puree with an emulsion of coconut tahini and sprinkled with delicate bits of candied oranges. All of the steaks are dry-aged on site for no less than 60 days, where the restaurant’s famous “C.E.O.” Tomahawk Steak weighs in at a very substantial 4 pounds and comes with a side of parmesan truffle fries.
No visit to Vault would be complete without at least a sampling of the Poor Man’s Brie En Croute appetizer, which has quickly become a favorite among the restaurant’s regulars. The dish comes out hot, featuring a plate of bacon-wrapped saltine crackers that have been stuffed with Brie cheese and lightly brushed with a Creole tomato glaze.
“Being an executive-level wine sommelier, I’ve organized what is not a simple or ill-conceived wine menu, that’s for sure,” laughs Womack. “It’s really comprehensive, but some of our greatest sellers have been two of the three varietals that Daron and I made here locally through a company called Barrels Unlimited. The Vault Tellers Select is a Carménère blend and the Vault Bankers Blend is a Grenache blend, and you can only get them at the Vault.”
Although it’s only been open for a few short weeks, Vault is staged to become an Arkansas institution. “We’ve designed it for the long haul with a sense of permanence,” says Womack. “We intend on becoming a part of the greater fabric of Hot Springs and Arkansas. Right now, if you go to Hot Springs you have to go to the bathhouses, you have to see the Arlington Hotel and you have to go to Lake Ouachita. Our hope is that soon we will become a destination that people have to experience while in town.”
For more information, visit vault723.com.