Much like the mythical city that it is named for, El Dorado for many Arkansans is a place we hear a lot about but rarely find. Part of it is the little over 2 hour drive from Little Rock, which passes the quick trip mark to become a major outing for the state’s main population center, even further from those in Northwest. The other part is a general disbelief that small city of just over 18,000 located at the bottom end of the state can really offer much worth visiting.
I held onto these beliefs through much of my growing up. Finally, while at college in Arkadelphia in the early 2000’s I made a few day trips over and found the infancy of a city hidden from view and very much worth visiting. Return trips now as an adult show that El Dorado has grown with me. Not quite the fully grown mecca that it can one day be, but on the verge of turning that corner.
In many ways it reminds me of the boom in Bentonville. A concentrated downtown area with corporate backing to help it feel secure in growth and be a bit bolder than the finances support. On the other hand it brings a culture, legacy, and a bit of grittiness that Bentonville cannot manufacture. It is something that adds a bit of charm to it all.
In many ways the historical food scene of El Dorado battles against the new emerging scene. We found a number of charming coffee shops around that have been losing business, including one that went out of business, to a large chain and very mediocre coffee shop. The high-profile branding and premium corner location draws the eye of tourist while casting a shadow over the old local establishments.
In other areas, such as the famous Minute Man or Spud Nuts, the history is lavished and put on a pedestal. The locals take such pride in these spots and they attract such a cult following for those who do make the journey down.
The new El Dorado shows a lot of promise. Fayray’s could easily find a home in any of the state’s larger cities. The food was a good mix of New Orleans flavor blended with some Italian influence. It was a welcome departure from the fried everything you find everywhere in southern Arkansas. In our visit it shows promise of a solid flagship spot for the local food scene.
Also not to miss is La Piazza Italian Restaurant that many from that area of the state rave about. It is nothing over the top, just solid simple Italian food. One of those spots that you can always count on a good meal. Around the corner is La Bella Gourmet Gifts and Deli. The menu is eclectic as the gift store it sits in, but it is one of those that you fill find a little something for everyone with no central focus. It makes a perfect spot for a small group that can’t make up their mind where to eat and should leave everyone satisfied.
There is also a lot on the horizon that can set El Dorado up to be a top destination in the state. The upcoming Griffin restaurant in the Murphy Arts District shows a lot of promise and could be that signature spot that causes everyone to pay attention. With that will likely come even more development in El Dorado. Even more the grand opening event for the district is huge and contains even better musical acts than the larger music festivals in the major population centers around the state.
Take a chance and get down to El Dorado. They even have a few very charming places to stay and make a weekend out of it. In doing so you might get the chance to witness the next great Arkansas destination blossom over the next year.