If you were around in the mid-1970s in Little Rock, you are fortunate enough to remember one of the most remarkable entries in the city’s fine dining history. Talk to anyone who was there, and they’ll tell you Jacques & Suzanne was not only as good as it got but will argue to sundown it was as good or better than anything that’s ever been since.
“I think it really opened up a lot of people’s minds about good food and good wine,” said Chris Cranford, director and editor at Cranford Co., the Little Rock advertising firm he shares with his brothers, Ross and Jay. “I think that really expanded Little Rock’s culinary culture, which, to me, is what was so special about the story.”
Cranford confesses to never having experienced Jacques & Suzanne firsthand, which is one thing that makes his recently released short documentary “Elevated: How Jacques & Suzanne Lifted Little Rock’s Cuisine” so outstanding. The film details the backstory of the restaurant through the eyes of the people who were there and for whom the place was home, both professionally and personally.
“What was fascinating to me about the story, in interviewing some of these guys that had come in, was it presented itself as this story of the American Dream,” Cranford said. “I’d only gotten a hint of that early on, but it still hadn’t resonated with me as being such a big part of the story. When I started to hear these guys talk a little bit more about that, it just presented itself in those interviews. And you’re just like, it’s gold.”
The film brings together a collection of principles in the story, including co-owners Louis Petit, Chef Paul Bash and Kathy Goss, as well as former chefs Denis Seyer and Jacques Hortot and maitres’d Peter Marti and Beat Kotoun who share their experiences with the seminal restaurant.
“There were like, five of us from Europe,” Seyer said in the film. “They had an ad in the paper, Swiss paper, specializing in hotel business. We didn’t even know where we were going because the ad read, ‘mid-America.’ It was kind of a little shock when we got here, to say the least.
“All I knew is the restaurant’s going to be on the tallest building in Little Rock at the time. So, we were all like, ‘Oh man, you’re going to have a great view from the second story.’”
The vision came from namesakes Jacques and Suzanne Treton, who’d been lured here by the opportunity to develop a restaurant on the 30th floor of the then-First Commercial Bank Building, now the Regions Bank Building. Whatever culture shock the staff experienced was quickly assuaged by the warm reception they got from locals.
“The people were extremely friendly,” Hortot said in the film. “I fell in love with the country and the people.”
“When we came here, we were like, received fantastic by everybody,” Seyer said. “Not only the little guy, but the big guy, everybody opened the door.”
The coat-and-tie-required restaurant was an immediate hit, orchestrated by the tuxedo-clad Louis Petit and his successors out front and dutifully served by Best and his expert staff working in the custom-designed kitchen.
“Every night was like a symphony,” Petit said. “We were promoting the art of living.”
Diners of the day no doubt will remember the souffles, chateaubriand escoffier, rack of lamb provencale with tableside garnishes and house-made pastries as particular favorites, washed down with fine wine and enjoyed under custom Italian crystal chandeliers.
“One of the best recipes was the escargot that we did,” Best said in the film. “People loved that butter sauce so much that they would say, ‘We’d like to order the snails, but hold the snails.’”
“It was richer than the cuisine is today, of course,” Petit added. “Why is it so good? It was cream and butter and more butter.”
Jacques & Suzanne garnered prestigious honors, such as the Travel Holiday Award, Mobile Travel Guide Four Star Award, recommendation by Gourmet Magazine, and in 2017, induction into the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame. But more than that, it became a place of connection and community in ways most restaurants don’t. Staffers and diners shared memorable stories in the film, from Best being laid out attempting to roust an unruly customer to regulars Tim and Angela Childress getting married there.
“You see people today and they’ll say, ‘Well, we did this at Jacques & Suzanne’s, we got engaged at Jacques & Suzanne’s, we had our anniversary at Jacques & Suzanne’s,’ you know,” Bash said. “And even today people will say, ‘There’s never been a place like Jacques & Suzanne, and probably never will.’ So, we were very fortunate.”
Kotoun said in the film, “There is a saying in America about the American Dream.” “The American Dream is alive. I lived the American Dream. I still live the American Dream. This establishment, Jacques & Suzanne, gave many of us the jumping board, the opportunity to have very, very successful careers. And for that, I’m indebted to this establishment, to this management team, for the rest of my life.”
It’s been nearly 40 years since the award-winning restaurant closed its doors, meaning there are likely more people who know Jacques & Suzanne by legend than by any sort of direct gastronomical memory. That sort of aging tends to exaggerate the flavors of the truth, making the film’s interviews important as a historical record, capturing a time and place never to be seen again.
“My dad [legendary Little Rock adman Wayne Cranford] had his agency in that same building,” Chris Cranford said. “I like to think of it as kind of the Mad Men era, too. It was where they could go have business lunches, even martini lunches.
“As Louis Petit said, the evening started even before you got there, because you had to dress up for dinner. Going into it, you were already investing in this thing, that it was going to be a special night out kind of deal whereas now, you can eat anywhere in pretty much whatever you want to wear. It was certainly a different era.”
Watching the film, one cannot help but be struck at how well the look of the restaurant holds up, with only hairstyles and patron attire betraying its vintage. This is particularly unexpected given the radical changes in the fine dining industry of late, which, in many places, looks nothing like the archetype. Indeed, the widening circles of time, taste and trend have carried the fine dining experience through some strange and wonderful places since the Jacques & Suzanne heyday, when the chef was the headliner and the patrons the audience. In today’s market, the balance of power has shifted.
High-end restaurants are still an expression of the people behind them, but are also much more beholding to what the public will allow from menu to prices. In this way, the fine dining landscape is very different than what it was in the 1970s, 1990s, or even a couple of months before the COVID pandemic shifted the industry’s tectonic plates, setting off a tsunami that swept away old ways of thinking and forever altered the dining shoreline.
The fine dining category that’s grown up since is more democratic than ever, largely as a means of survival. According to Food & Beverage Insider, diners are clamoring to reconnect over a meal, and restaurants are more than happy to do what they must to get them after the choppy waters of the past three years pulled so many asunder.
TouchBistro, a seller of point-of-sale systems for the industry reported restaurant sales overall have still only recovered to about 75% of pre-pandemic levels, making forecasts of pent-up demand welcomed ones, indeed. But with inflationary times continuing to pinch many consumers’ discretionary income, the pressure is on restaurants to conform to trends in order to lure diners away from the competition.
In its 2023 What’s Hot Culinary Forecast, released in November, the National Restaurant Association in partnership with the American Culinary Federation and Technomic unveiled the broad trends to watch, as expressed by industry thought leaders. Leading the list were dining as an experience and continued demand for sustainable, hyper-local fare from garden or farm to fork with minimal processing in between.
Other trends expected to influence menus include growing demand for international fare, especially influences from Southeast Asia such as Vietnam, Singapore and the Philippines, part of what the NRA calls “flavor tourism.”
“Consumers want to connect over shared meals more than ever. Offering comfort foods, many with a global or signature twist … continue to be smart business practices,” the report noted. “Shareable charcuterie and elevated bar snacks are satisfying consumers’ munchies while enhancing the communal, on-premises dining experience.”
And, like most other industries, technology will continue to creep into restaurant operations — including the kitchen itself — thus being a major element in fine dining’s ability to woo diners.
As Jennifer Kingson wrote for Axios in December, “Dishes that are an aggressive mash-up of global flavors, like sashimi tostadas and tandoori spaghetti, will hit restaurant menus in 2023, a style that’s been dubbed ‘chaos cooking,’ food prognosticators say. Those concoctions will live or die depending on how well they play on TikTok, the latest must-use channel for restaurateurs. There’s an arms race to create video-friendly dishes for TikTok, which is rapidly supplanting Instagram and Facebook as the go-to social platform for people deciding where to eat.
“Expect more showy tableside experiences beyond the familiar guacamole-prep ritual. Hot spots such as Miller & Lux in San Francisco turn Caesar salad into an artfully choreographed cheese-and-lettuce-slicing event. ‘Cheese pulls, sauce drips, drink pours, tableside preparations are all key,’ Mike Kostyo of Datassential tells FSR Magazine, a food service periodical.”
While there’s plenty of evidence fine dining is still driven by the reputation and personality of the resident culinarian, there’s also evidence that many of the world’s most decorated chefs are moving toward giving people what they want, some in the most unexpected fashion. According to 7shifts.com, a scheduling software company targeting the restaurant industry, fast casual dining has reached the highest levels of the industry.
“Canlis, a Seattle white-tablecloth institution, and Noma, one of the best restaurants in the world, traded their Michelin-star plates for buns and started flipping burgers,” the company noted on its March 2021 blog. “Canlis created an All-American drive-thru with burgers and fries. Noma became a burger and wine bar, serving takeout for the first time.”
The company also noted food halls as another emerging trend, satisfying diners’ appetite for communal experiences. This trend was echoed by finedininglovers.com, which also noted the number of Michelin-starred and James Beard-nominated chefs who were gravitating to such places.
“Instead of buttoned-up, sit-down meals, food halls offer easily digestible, relatively fast fare,” wrote Flora Tsapovsky last summer. “And yet, they bring a new sensitivity to the scene, be it by sourcing only the best ingredients or utilizing elevated techniques.
“The momentum is stronger than ever both for the curators of food halls and chefs who previously had their hands full operating high-end, acclaimed institutions. As airy, no-reservations-needed food markets have grown in popularity in the pandemic aftermath, and the market grew competitive, the goal has been to attract top-talents with cult followings.”
Arkansas has kept up with the contemporary version of the fine dining establishment but, as with most things in the state, in its own way. Arkansans, as a population, respect quality but tend to reject ceremony, which is why some of the most exciting fine dining experiences in the state can better be described as sophisticated more than formal. Upper-crust spots Red Oak Steakhouse in Pine Bluff, The Bugler at Oaklawn in Hot Springs, The Hive @ 21C in Bentonville and Little Rock’s Petit & Keet and One Eleven at The Capital today embody a more relaxed atmosphere, without sacrificing elegance.
Arkansas’s fine dining establishments also appear to have a leg up on diner preferences coming into the new year, as comfort foods are among the National Restaurant Association’s recognized hot trends. This is leading many restaurants in the country to fashion upscale replicas of the Southern entrees and sides that are long-held staples here. In other words, things we didn’t just perfect, we likely invented them.
And surrounded as they are by natural and man-made amenities, fine dining restaurants here come paired with the experiences diners today demand, such as a breathtaking vista or companion cultural activities and local entertainment. A Bentonville afternoon at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art capped by dinner at The Preacher’s Son, for example. Riding the Arkansas River Trail followed by Little Rock’s Cache Restaurant, or refueling after a day spent on Pinnacle Mountain with the high-end fare of Arthur’s Steakhouse. Or how about a day on Lake Hamilton, dinner at Vault and a show at Maxwell Blade’s Theater of Magic in Hot Springs? The itinerary list goes on.
All of which are light years away from the era in which Jacques & Suzanne operated, when the formal dinner was the centerpiece of the day, no matter what else had transpired to that point. A time when the world felt much larger, all the better to have a cultural emissary in the form of the international food and service and environment that it embodied.
In its wake, Jacques & Suzanne seeded at least 25 different restaurants that themselves grew into the landscape of Little Rock dining, each of which carried forward a small spark of the original. But as a whole, it is a place never to be seen again, save for the influence it had on a generation of chefs and operators to come, and in “Elevated,” Chris Cranford’s artful gift to the world.
“I just wanted to capture the story before it was lost to time,” he said. “I think it was such a special era. For people my parents’ age, who went there and dined there, I want them to be able to kind of relive that and enjoy that and those memories. Then for people my age and younger, to see this is the ripple in the pond that has led to what we have today. We should enjoy that as well.”
See “Elevated: How Jacques & Suzanne Lifted Little Rock’s Cuisine” at jacquesdoc.com.
Elevated: How Jacques & Suzanne Lifted Little Rock’s Cuisine from Chris Cranford on Vimeo.