Is Bentonville The South’s Next Cultural Mecca?

October 6, 2012 | By | Comments (26)
eleven2 Is Bentonville The South’s Next Cultural Mecca?

Eleven restaurant at Crystal Bridges Museum/photo by Paula Disbrowe

Not familiar with Arkansas terroir? That might change sooner than you think. Thanks to last year’s opening of Crystal Bridges Museum (founded by philanthropist Alice Walton, who chairs the museum’s board of directors), the stunning, shimmering structure created by architect Moshe Sofdie, the town is ramping up to welcome a new breed of cultural tourists. As a result, there have been major efforts to spiff up the historic downtown square, connect that square to the museum via leafy bike paths, and ramp up the restaurant scene. New additions include Eleven, the museum’s breathtaking restaurant that’s suspended over water and nods to local flavor in dishes like Sweet Tea-Brined Chicken and shrimp served over grits from nearby War Eagle Mill, as well as downtown gastropub Tusk and Trotter, Tavola Trattoria, and local favorite Petit Bistro.

matthew mcclure Is Bentonville The South’s Next Cultural Mecca?

Matthew McClure, chef at The Hive in Bentonville’s new 21c Hotel/photo courtesy of 21c Museum Hotels

“Bentonville is a big city with a small town mask on it,” says Matt McClure, the newly appointed chef at The Hive, the upscale restaurant in the forthcoming 21c Museum Hotel, which opens in the first quarter of 2013. McClure was most recently at Ashley’s, the fine dining restaurant at The Capital Hotel in Little Rock. The decision of the hip hotel concept (which has two other locations, one in Louisville and another in Cincinnati) to open in Bentonville shows confidence in the area’s growing cultural scene. “It’s pretty incredible how the downtown square has transformed,” McClure says. “The local economy brings in a lot of transplants from around the country. You can’t swing a a bat without hitting a Harvard MBA.”

“The soil here makes us unique,” he continues. “Arkansas terroir gives us the opportunity to serve unique food. I really like French cooking techniques applied to what’s available at the local farmer’s market. I like those challenges of shopping, picking things up, and making a menu. Perimeters aren’t a bad thing, we don’t need to fly in fish from South Pacific.”

The evolution of what McClure calls “high South style” begs the question, what is today’s Southern food? Beyond the signature, bacon-studded flavors of the deep South, it will be compelling to watch how cities like Bentonville and St. Louis continue to embrace deeper relationships with regional farmers and purveyors.

“The tourists that come here are going to want that uniquely Arkansas experience, and that’s what they’re going to get at The Hive. You can bet there will be million to hundred million dollar deals happening at the bar. In turn, our kitchen will be serious, but the food and atmosphere will be fun and relaxing, not intimidating.”

If you have any doubts about how humble beginnings can grow to influence a nation, consider two examples:

Exhibit A:

dolly Is Bentonville The South’s Next Cultural Mecca?

Andy Warhol’s portrait of Dolly Parton, part of the permanent collection at Crystal Bridges Museum/photo by Paula Disbrowe

Exhibit B:

waltons Is Bentonville The South’s Next Cultural Mecca?

Walton’s 5 & 10 (the original Walmart) on Bentonville’s town square/photo courtesy of Walmart Visitor’s Center.


  1. Arkansas. It’s Not What You Think. |

    […] 2012 one Southern Living writer wondered Is Bentonville the South’s Next Cultural Mecca and in 2013 Bentonville, Arkansas made the Washington’s Post’s In/Out List (we were […]

    January 7, 2016 at 3:26 pm
  2. Derek

    might want to check out a u.s. map and do about less than 5 minutes of research. southern state/southern city all the way. heck i would even say 2 hours north, southwest missouri is more southern than midwest

    March 17, 2013 at 2:05 pm
  3. Derek

    bentonville, midwest?? lol what are you smokin

    March 17, 2013 at 2:00 pm
  4. Tim

    Elizabeth, April is a gorgeous time to visit Bentonville and the area! If you contact Diana Eike at the Bentonville Convention and Visitors’ Bureau, she can help you with any information you may need. The web site has lots of links and resources about Bentonville’s attractions and hotels.

    diana(at) is her address.


    February 27, 2013 at 9:35 am
  5. Elizabeth A. Rieder

    I was born in Search 75 years ago, and after delivery, my family went home to Bald Knob. When I graduated from BMHSN in Memphis, I married a wonderful man from MN, so we moved to the Mpls. area so he could finish his senior at the U of MN. When I saw the article in Southern Living, November issue, about the “new are corridor”, I was immediately eager to be a visitor of the 66 mile trip! My question is: would April be a good time to visit? Who could send me information about “all the details”? Thanks for fiving me something to look very forward to!! EAR

    February 26, 2013 at 10:58 pm
  6. pauladisbrowe

    Matt H, thanks for your comment. I haven’t made it to Doe’s yet, but thanks for putting it on my radar. I can’t wait to check it out on my next trip.

    January 28, 2013 at 9:36 am
  7. matt h.

    Funny how they didn’t mention Doe’s Eat Place of Bentonville. They have been there for over 10 years, and entertain most of the A list celebrities that Wal-Mart/Sam’s Club brings to town. They are Also James Beard Award winners… Oh well,

    January 28, 2013 at 9:29 am
  8. lrholiday

    Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to say the next cultural mecca of the ‘Midwest’? I don’t think NWA is really considered the ‘South’.

    January 23, 2013 at 9:11 am
  9. Rebecca Young

    In the 50s and 60s Bentonville was the perfect town, the perfect place to raise a family. I can’t even drive through there without crying now. I know I am getting old and need to give into the future, but the past was so beautiful.

    January 3, 2013 at 4:19 pm
  10. Derek G.

    I am a graduate from Plano Sr. High and moved here from McKinney, TX so I will claim the position of a person who is familiar with dynamic high growth cities. I moved here in the summer of 2005 bringing my wife and 2 sons to what I discovered to be a top tier school district. Our family quickly fell in love with NW Arkansas and the move here was among the best decisions of my life. What is most exciting is that there is a palpable energy of entrepreneurism that has become increasingly rare in this country. Walmart, JB Hunt and Tyson were all founded by individuals that embodied the “can-do” attitude that was once so common in America. The shadows of these men still loom large here and imbue a work ethic and value system that touches all of us that work here. The only thing holding NW Arkansas back is the tax burden. 9.5% sales tax, personal property tax, 6.5% Corporate Income tax, and a top rate of 7% on personal income rank us 46th in the nation for highest tax burden. All said, a wonderful place to call home and with a 4.9% unemployment rate opportunities abound.

    January 2, 2013 at 9:37 pm
  11. Mike Abb

    Good to see more pub being given to the region – although there isn’t much to write about in the south these days. Hopefully this model can be taken to other struggling southern cities and prop them up. Proud to be from Bentonville and miss it some days. Other days I’m glad I moved away. The problem is still that it is a working town and not much play in it. “Where you go to settle down” isn’t the most fun thing to say when talking vacation destinations. That being said another 10 years and all the old farts will be few and far between and there won’t be many memories of the days before booze was legal and you could get a meal worth paying for downtown left.

    January 2, 2013 at 2:43 pm
  12. tc

    Bentonville, actually all of NWA, has changed tremendously in the 32+ years I’ve been fortunate enough to live here. When I came up the hill in 1980, the cultural amenities were few and far between. It has been an interesting metamorphosis. I am excited about the future.

    PS. Technically, in keeping with the spirit of the region, when whacking MBA’s from Harvard or anywhere really, you would want swing a “dead cat” as opposed to a “bat”. Looking forward to eating at the Hive.

    January 2, 2013 at 11:58 am
  13. Tim

    What a wonderful place to live, live, work, and create! We’ve loved it for 26 years, and look forward to an amazing future in Bentonville. Restaurants (Tavola Trattoria, to name one), art galleries (Norberta Philbrook Gallery, to name one), and the amazing people (my wife, Leslie, to name one, haha) are just a few of the reasons. Visit us!

    January 2, 2013 at 9:51 am
  14. Kris

    We NWAer’s also have the privilege of The Walton Art Center, with its Chicago musicals and Broadway shows. Unbelievable culture! Lets not forget multiple golf courses including, but certainly not limited too, Pinnacle Country Club, an LPGA tournament course. The four defined seasons and many rivers and lakes are breathtaking! We are truly blessed!

    January 1, 2013 at 8:41 pm
  15. consultingxna

    Stephanie-Evolved Mommy,
    I know you asked for comment from the author, but I will chime in as well. Not sure if the area will ever be the ‘next Austin’ as one has to consider the state capital status of Austin and the overwhelming size of UT vs. the smaller U. of Arkansas. And frankly, I don’t think that would really be a good thing (rising to Austin type prominence). For one, there is a wonderful quirkiness about Fayetteville, the college town up in the hills (ages ago named the Athens of Arkansas) and a different type of quirkiness up the road as Bentonville is this world-class Mayberry with non-stops to name a few, to LaGuardia, Newark, LAX and more. I hope we never lose those essences that provide visitors with a certain serendipitous experience so they go home and tell friends how they went to this place expecting just biscuits and gravy but instead relished Paulette’s Crepes on the Bentonville Square or dined at Tavola’s and museum director Don Bacigalupi was at the next booth with his young son and partner. Thanks to high-tech and Matthew McConaughey, Austin has lost that certain feeling, in my opinion, from the 70s when Willie and friends jammed there. And Austin’s South by Southwest festival has become nearly unmanageable. So, no, I hope we can pass on being the next Austin. We have the Bikes, Blues and BBQ festival each fall in Fayetteville and that is a gracious plenty for these parts.

    But the next big thing for Bentonville and the area will be the larger Walton Arts Center auditorium which is to be built in Bentonville. The overall market has simply outgrown the 1,500 seat Walton Arts Center main hall in downtown Fayetteville. Thanks to a gift of land and money from the Walton family, the new 2,400 seat performance hall will be near the interstate in Bentonville for easy access to the entire region. (Parking, for one things, is a pain in the Fayetteville entertainment district. Even the locals, let alone tourists, can’t figure it out. We will assume parking will NOT be a problem in the city-home of Walmart, you know, build it, put a parking lot around it and they will come). Some Fayetteville folks were not happy with the seeming strong-arming from the Walton Foundation that ‘here is the money and the land but it has to be built in Bentonville’ provision. But pragmatically it makes sense to me. The market is no longer just Fayetteville centered and people from the lower end (Fayetteville/Springdale) will have a reasonable commute to the new auditorium especially considering the current arts center is not near a major highway. The current location will continue to have performances and also a newly expanded venue over at the university, all part of the expansion of the Walton Arts Center facilities (not just to Bentonville). The Bentonville location for a new auditorium will provide easier access to the Joplin market just north, as well.

    When built the larger performance hall will allow for even bigger Broadway shows and high-price talent that was, frankly, getting rather expensive per ticket in the original smaller hall down in Fayetteville. E.g., Yo-Yo Ma appeared down there a few years ago and the only reason the tickets were not astronomical for me and my cellist sons at that smaller venue was because an anonymous patron stepped up with a subsidy. Can’t depend on that for every show.

    With a major performance hall plus the museum plus the local color and ambiance, yeah, things are going to be happening in Bentonville and NW Arkansas. Already people are viewing NW Arkansas and SW MIssouri as a totality. Within two hours’ distance you have Springfield/Branson, Joplin, Eureka Springs, the Buffalo National River, the frontier river towns of Fort Smith and Van Buren plus NW Arkansas. You would spend two weeks here and not take it all in. Think about it. Floating the pristine Buffalo one day, Crystal Bridges the next, a Broadway road show the day after that. I expect when the new hall is complete in Bentonville there will be wonderful music and art experiences coordinated between the two venues: Crystal Bridges and the Walton performing arts center. Then add the 1,500 performing arts hall already at Bentonville High to the multi-use lecture hall at the museum (perfect for chamber music and soloists), it would not be crazy to expect a classical music festival to develop here in future years. My son, an orchestra education major at U or North Texas in Denton, is so hoping that a position will be open in the Bentonville school district for him when he graduates next year. Imagine that: A young fellow with a music degree from a nationally-noted music college in the DFW area wanting to pass on any Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston or Austin opportunities to come home to the Ozarks. That’s what’s going on here.

    November 3, 2012 at 7:51 am
  16. consultingxna

    Correction, make that high school chamber ‘choir’.

    November 1, 2012 at 12:04 pm
  17. Ted

    I’m a Southerner (from outside New Orleans) but also a ‘vendor transplant’ who has been here for almost 20 years. It’s a great place to live. I’ve lived in suburban N.O., Houston, Little Rock and Fairfield County, CT, and this is the best place ever. Climate, things to do, food, ambiance (even before the museum opened) plus great schools. Yes, great schools. Bentonville High typically makes national rankings all the time and their music and arts programs are better than any of those in the aforementioned metro ‘burbs’ I have lived in. Similar for other nearby school systems. Glad to say that three of my kids have graduated from BHS. It’s like living in the leafy suburbs of a large city….except no big city. Now many parents can boast that because of the emphasis on arts, education AND sports, we have have a state championship football team plus a high school chamber orchestra and local youth orchestra that have both performed in Carnegie Hall?

    November 1, 2012 at 12:02 pm
  18. Stephanie :: Evolved Mommy

    Paula, I just heard someone refer to Northwest Arkansas as the “next Austin” the other day in reference to the tech and arts culture and in reference to the insanely fast growth. I’d love to hear your perspective on that.

    October 15, 2012 at 2:34 pm
  19. Kayla

    I can’t wait to move up there in a couple of years! 🙂 Central Arkansas is boring and sucks. Especially Little Rock itself. Every time I come up there, it’s just awesome. I don’t know how else to describe it. There’s always things to do and check out up there. Oh, and there’s a lot of sidewalks and trails and stuff like that up there too. There’s like…nothing down here. Not even Hot Springs is that great. You better save up a good amount of money if you actually want to do something nice that’s not in the ghetto area there. Most of the towns and cities seem so people friendly up there, and that’s excluding any city’s average crime. I’ve been to the Crystal Bridges Museum a couple of times too. I’m looking forward to my next visit.

    October 10, 2012 at 10:53 pm
  20. pauladisbrowe

    Jon, I couldn’t agree more. Check out the Scenic Route in our November issue, devoted to Arkansas’ Northwest Arts corridor, and you’ll find many of those spots. It’s such a beautiful corner of the State, I can’t wait to come back and mountain bike.

    October 9, 2012 at 10:23 pm
  21. Jon Langner

    Northwest Arkansas is probably more accurate than Bentonville. If you expand your scope just a few miles, you’ll find a host of world class restaurants, one of the country’s top theater troop in Theater Squared, the Walton Arts Center, botanical gardens, a minor league baseball team, and a fantastic university. Culture abounds in Northwest Arkansas!

    October 9, 2012 at 6:16 pm
  22. pauladisbrowe

    Angie, you’re probably right–that’s certainly the case where I live in Austin. James I look forward to returning when the 21c opens, and I think you’re correct that your home is poised for serious growth. NWAmomentum, thanks for the catch. I visited War Eagle on my trip there–what a gorgeous old mill!

    October 8, 2012 at 3:27 pm
  23. nwamomentum

    It’s WAR EAGLE MILL, not WAR EAGER. Just FYI from a girl who lives there…

    October 8, 2012 at 2:41 pm
  24. James @RedDirtRunner

    Most folks around here I find lack a grasp of how much of an impact this museum has already had on the region. That impact will continue to grow stronger with the opening of 21C and the other businesses opening their doors around the Square. Throw in the potential passage of Benton County going “wet” in November and things could really heat up. I am a non-native Arkansan but first came here back in 1990 and NWA quickly grew on me. This is now my home and it is exciting to see our little corner of the Ozarks get some attention. Now all we need is a second high school.

    October 8, 2012 at 12:50 pm
  25. Angie

    Oops…that was meant to be a :))

    October 8, 2012 at 8:28 am
  26. Angie

    Gee….great. This’ll probably bring more transplants in to the area. Just what we need. :/

    October 8, 2012 at 8:17 am

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