The Little Rock area has been on a roll lately with a number of popular food shows highlighting local restaurants. One show that you do not want to be highlighted on however is Gordon Ramsay’s 24 Hours to Hell and Back. The show takes struggling restaurants and tries to renovate and turn them around in 24 hours. The restaurants are presented on the show as some of the worst of the worst, with usually disgusting attributes.
Last year the show came to Central Arkansas and featured spots in Conway and North Little Rock and they reached out to Rock City Eats to come along for the journey. I was pitched on both episodes and ultimately chose the Conway episode featuring Bear’s Den along with fellow writer Joel DiPippa. On the second day, we brought our friends Kyle and Amanda Ivy from Low Ivy back with us, along with my wife and a friend of Joel’s.
It ended up being equal parts one of the worst restaurant experiences and one of the best. If you have not watched yet, take an hour and go watch the episode. After that, we wanted to give you a look behind the scenes of how it all went down.
Did the restaurant know ahead of time?
Speaking with the owner and some staff, Bear’s Den did not know ahead of time. They responded to an open call for a restaurant renovation show, the crew came in and did some shots and interviewed staff ahead of time, this is clear from previous seasons and episodes. The first day of filming they knew it was being filmed obviously (hard to miss the camera crews), but they were told it was just footage for the renovation show. We were one of the few that knew Ramsay was in the restaurant. The other patrons and staff were very surprised.
How was Bear’s Den before Ramsay’s crew got in?
In the nicest way possible, it was a dump. Not shown was Joel nearly falling through a broken bench not long after we sat down. The place was run down and dilapidated. My seat was covered by three different pieces of fabric stapled together. They had what looked like an elementary school cafeteria table as one of the main seating options. Highlighting it all were the disgusting drop ceilings with beer cans hanging from them everywhere.
The food matched the atmosphere. The pizza tasted like a frozen Red Barron. We ordered a dip that had been clearly microwaved, the top layer of cheese was partially melted and the dip underneath was still cold.
Talking with locals who have eaten there before, this seemed like the normal quality of the place, not something made up for television.
Was it Really 24 Hours?
One of the most frequent questions I’ve been asked about is if the show really takes place in 24 hours, which is the main premise. The answer surprisingly is yes, mostly. We wrapped up the initial shot around 1:30 in the afternoon on Saturday and came back around 4 the next day to prep for the final scenes. Given time for crew adjustments, it was right at the promised 24 hours.
Now there are some tricks to the trade that obviously has to happen to make it work. There were a lot of prefabricated parts to the renovation and the crew obviously knew the restaurant well to have everything waiting and ready to go in.
There were also a number of areas that the crew just didn’t have time to touch in 24 hours. As I mentioned earlier, the ceiling tiles were in major need of replacement, they were not able to get to those. The area right off the main dining room with the bathrooms and the hallway to the space they were trying to expand to was equally untouched and in strong need of at least a coat of paint and a few patched holes in the wall. We never ventured out to the patio area, but it was also untouched by the crew.
How was Gordon Ramsay
For all his yelling and cussing persona, Ramsay was extremely nice and caring in our interactions with him. He does seem to have a real passion for helping restaurants find success. We had a brief interaction on the first day, then on the second he came around and visited with us for a while.
Even better was both his and his crew’s desire to get in and explore the local restaurant scene. The producers came to me asking for a list of recommendations for the crew and for Ramsay himself to visit which are some of the highlights of the area. I know they stopped in several including Three Fold, which he ate and visited with a number of people dining in.
This was a sharp contrast to some other experiences where they frequently get in, shoot, and get out of town as quickly as possible. The production crew was town for about 3 weeks total and spent a lot of time checking out different parts of the area. That type of familiarity really helps different areas of Little Rock get on future shows since a lot of production staff have various shows they work with.
How were the changes at Bear’s Den
The remodel was much needed. Day one the look of Bear’s Den was a place that makes Pizza D’s look like a Vegas restaurant, day two it was something that fit in with the surrounding college area much better. Clean fixtures and seating, even if most of it looked straight out of an IKEA box.
Food-wise though, it could not have been more night and day different. Mosty the food was actually cooked and handmade rather than being brought in from frozen and tossed in the microwave.
Everything was great, full of flavor, and well made. The bucatini pasta dish was perfectly made, almost too perfect…
If you watched the show, you did see we sent a pizza back (we were asked to). The kitchen crew struggled in spots with actual hand making the dough. The dramatic change in quality was one of our biggest question marks in fact. The hand-stretched dough is a blessing and a curse, get it right and it is exceptional, get it wrong and becomes a mediocre undercooked pizza. Likewise, bucatini is a hard pasta to nail down for untrained kitchen crew. The denseness of the pasta makes it easy to under or overcook.
I wouldn’t worry about it for an average restaurant, but for a kitchen crew that mostly moved food from a freezer to a microwave, I wonder if they can sustain the quality. If they do then Bear’s Den could be a very successful restaurant in Conway.
Joel and I plan a visit back in a few weeks to see how things are going after the show has aired and the dust has settled. We will let you know.