The Wilson Cafe: A Jewel in the Arkansas Delta
Disclosure: This post is sponsored by Designsensory, Inc. Opinions are my own.)
I don’t remember much of my very first trip to Wilson in the northeastern corner of the Arkansas Delta. It was a quick trip with a college buddy who hailed from there. I do remember thinking what a quaint, pretty, little town — emphasis on the “little.” It certainly wasn’t a place I expected to return to again.
The town of Wilson was essentially a plantation of sorts created by R.E. Lee Wilson who drained swampland in Mississippi County he had inherited from his father Josiah. At an early age Lee Wilson had himself legally declared as an adult and thus began the building of his agricultural and logging empire amassing at one point over 65,000 acres worth millions making Lee Wilson and Company the biggest cotton producer in the entire South.
Wilson, Arkansas, located at the intersection of US 61 and Hwy 14, started as one of Lee Wilson’s company towns in which all of the services, except for the postmaster and railroad employees, were Wilson Company employees. Eventually, all of the buildings surrounding the town square were either built or retrofitted in the Tudor style, including the local restaurant and watering hole known as The Tavern.
For many years the restaurant and tavern operated successfully serving as both a gathering and entertainment place for the locals. As fewer laborers were required on the farms due to technological advances, people moved away to find other employment, and the cafe closed for many years.
In 2011, when the Wilson family sold all of its holdings to the Lawrence Group, plans were made to reopen the restaurant renamed as The Wilson Cafe (still known by the locals as The Tavern) under the guidance of Memphis-based Chefs Joe Cartwright and Shari Haley. It was shortly after the 2013 opening, that I made my second trip to Wilson just to check out the renovation of the restaurant.
I was definitely not disappointed in the pork porterhouse I selected. Always on the dinner menu, it’s currently being served with bacon jam, smokey blueberry gastrique, jalepeno corn pudding, Brussels sprouts.
It was a pleasant journey traveling from the duck blinds of Prairie County to the freshly plowed grounds of Mississippi County, albeit much of it along I 40 with the truckers. Upon turning north on I 55 and AR 181, the pace slowed and a gently peacefulness settled in over us. Once reaching our destination, it was obvious that new things were happening and an undercurrent of excitement was present.
Recently renovated, the dining room gleamed with sparkling white subway tile, subtle gray wainscoting and bright white ceilings. In the private dining room, a unique quartet of lamps dangled from an antique pulley.
On our second visit, I remember talking to our waitress who was so pleased and impressed to learn we had made the trek in from central Arkansas just to eat at The Wilson Cafe. We were even more impressed with the beauty of the building, the courteousness of the staff and excellent menu choices. Honestly, all were far better than we had ever anticipated.
I questioned then whether a small-town restaurant of this caliber could succeed given the menu and prices which seemed rather lofty and hefty for a “country cafe.” Apparently, the word got around to Chef Cartwright who reworked the menu while remaining passionate about the quality of the food he serves. He sources his products from all over the Delta region, using only domestic seafood, certified Angus beef, produce and fruit from regional organic farms, including the growing Wilson Gardens located just across the highway. Everything in the cafe is made from scratch.
Recently, I returned to Wilson and found the town brimming with excitement over its future and its possibilities. There’s talk of it becoming an arts and cultural center — perhaps a mecca for writers and tech-savvy millennials or a center for agricultural researchers. With far-ranging plans in the conversation, the mayor and town council with the support of the Lawrence team, are taking methodical steps towards creating a hub not only for visitors, but for those seeking a new place to settle outside the hustle and bustle of larger surrounding towns. And neighbors who are neighborly.
Oh, and there was lunch of course.
The expected fall 2017 opening of Hampson Archeological Museum which will house the largest collection of Native American artifacts, will no doubt garner the world-wide attention of archaeologists, historians and educators. Currently, only a fraction of the items found at the Nodena site are actually on display at Hampson Archeological Museum State Park.
For an excellent background and additional information on Wilson, see author Talya Boerner’s recent post.)
Cartwright and his now-wife Haley along with sous chef, Jonathan Sawrie, are eagerly awaiting this influx of new clientele. They know that a good restaurant anchors a successful town and are expecting more and more people stopping by and, perhaps staying, in Wilson.
Cartwright sees Wilson as community obsessed with quality. Apparently the reputation of that quality has reached surrounding towns such as nearby Jonesboro and Blytheville and even into Missouri, Tennessee and Mississippi creating a real mix of folks who frequent the cafe. During planting season, it’s not unusual to have both the public and private dining rooms filled with local farmers fresh from the field and Memphis tall-building bankers and lawyers feasting on one of The Wilson Cafe’s
- mouthwatering hamburgers
- a piece of chocolate chess pie
- or a bursting bowl of the signature Donut Bread Pudding
So how about discovering this jewel for yourself — a little adventure perhaps? Isn’t it time you took a long, slow walk and took a deep breath of fresh air? And definitely a plate full of really good food!
Do yourself a favor and go. See you there. We’ll share a bowl of Wilson Cafe’s famous Donut Bread Pudding.
When I head back soon to explore more of Wilson Gardens with resident argronomist Leslie Wolverton, you can bet I’ll be chowing down on a bowlful of these shrimp and grits!
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