“HOW FAR are we from Leslie?” our editor Katie asks.
Depending on how you choose to interpret the question, there are a few different ways to answer. Physically speaking, as the crow flies, from where we sit in Mountain View, it’s about 25 miles away—a little closer to 30 in the likely event you’re unable to fly and have to drive the winding two-lane country roads that bump along the Arkansas hills.
On a more metaphorical level, Leslie feels worlds away.
That’s not to say that Leslie—a small Ozark town passersby may recognize from their travels up U.S. Highway 65—is the center of the universe per se, the linchpin around which the rest of the world revolves. But for our purposes on this late-October morning, as we sit in a light-filled space with a turquoise floor—once a car dealership but now re-imagined as a restaurant—the distance between the two small Ozark towns matters a great deal. After all, you could say that one is point A and the other point B, both physically and metaphorically.
More specifically: We’re talking about two different restaurants. The first is Skylark Cafe in Leslie. Its counterpart, a seemingly Mediterranean-focused place housed in the cozily industrial space where we’re sitting, is Oliver’s Bistro in Mountain View. This is the follow-up.
This is the place we hope to love.
TO GET at the heart of a restaurant, to figure out what makes it tick, sometimes it’s best to start at the beginning. In the case of Oliver’s, you’ve got to start with Skylark. And in the case of Skylark, you’ve got to start with Joy Ellis—and a long string of back-and-forths. Originally from Leslie, Joy had first opened Skylark Cafe in 2009 as a 19-year-old. In 2014, after running the restaurant for a few years, she moved to Austin, where Denver, her husband, was attending cooking school at Le Cordon Bleu. In January 2015, the couple returned to Leslie for good.
The story of Oliver’s Bistro is roughly as convoluted. In July 2016, Joy and Denver got a call from the owners of Stone County Ironworks (recently rebranded as Urban Forge) in Mountain View. The owners, the Baker family, had some room to fill in the old C.B. Case Motor Co. building on the southwest corner of the square. While the Bakers had previously tried their hand at the restaurant biz—namely, with a pizza place by the name of Portico Pizza Kitchen—they were now hoping to bring some new life into the space. Although Skylark was then well on its way to becoming an established presence, already drawing its share of devotees both locally and beyond, the couple had their hands full as it was: Oliver, the future namesake, had just been born six months before.
Jump forward a few years to October 2017, and the Bakers came calling once again—this time just a week after Joy and Denver had just welcomed their second child into the world, Ila. This time around, however, the offer was just too good to turn down. After talking it over, they finally decided, “Well, we’ll never know unless we try.”
With the decision made, other pieces started coming together.
In May, they announced the new venture on social media after agreeing on the terms of the lease.
In June, they started remodeling the space.
In August, they opened their doors.
Of course, to really get at the heart of a place, you’ve got to go through the food. On the surface, for example, it might seem like Skylark’s menu is a hodgepodge of Tex-Mex and barbecue—but in fact, it’s just a cherry-picked mashup of the couple’s shared history. Much in the same way, Oliver’s menu gives every appearance of being something like Mediterranean fusion—but it’s far more than that.
A pizza oven left over from the Portico days provided the necessary motivation for Joy and Denver to learn pizza-making. A good friend—a Miami transplant living just up the road who raises goats and makes some of the best Greek food the couple has ever tasted—provided further inspiration (and later a test kitchen when things were coming together with the remodeling).
Although the principle at the heart of the restaurant’s creation was undoubtedly the same as Skylark—a desire to make food that Joy and Denver love and to share that food with others—one thing becomes evident once the food appears at our table at Oliver’s: You don’t have to talk about Skylark to talk about Oliver’s.
“Skylark is Skylark,” Joy will later say over the phone. “It’s the house, it’s the yard, it’s the whole vibe. I don’t think we could really re-create that if we wanted to, and we don’t really want to anyway.”
And that? That was the recipe for Oliver’s.
WHEN IT’S set on the table, the bruschetta, fresh from the oven, bubbles in a mini cast-iron skillet. There’s a brief discussion over the best approach. Do we dunk? Do we slather? Scoop? Pile?
“Y’all,” Katie says after taking a bite, her one-word assessment requiring no further elaboration or queries as to proper etiquette.
In the hour that follows, our table steadily fills with plates. Pizzas piled high with medallions of locally sourced lamb and chunks of feta, the airy Neapolitan crust slightly charred. A tenderloin sandwich with brie and local tomato jam, and a burger with nigh everything, are piled so high that they require some serious compressing before it’s possible to take a bite. Cones of pommes frites tossed in black truffle oil take our breath away. By the end, you can’t even see the table’s surface, which has been decoupaged with street photography from 1920s Europe.
Much like the space, which is filled with sunlight from the street-facing windows, the culinary colors are bright and light. Cranberries dot a to-die-for slaw. Herbs—parsley, mint and rosemary, all grown in window boxes—remind us how much of a difference something freshly picked can make. Even the aforementioned pommes frites—baked in the pizza oven and unlike any we’ve ever had—are light and feel like eating nothing at all, (you may start feeling a little sluggish should you eat an entire basket—as you should. Not that we’d know, of course).
For the remainder of the meal, there’s very little talking—and not a word about how it all compares to Skylark. Not even when dessert appears. (If you’ve been reading this magazine for a while, you know how we feel about Skylark’s strawberry pie. But now, suffice it to say, we have pretty similar feelings about Oliver’s New York-style blackberry buttermilk pie and double-dark-chocolate cake.)
As we get ready to leave, our light lunch made quite heavy, we can’t help but notice some of those things in the restaurant that tie it to Skylark—that show some of the original has rubbed off on the second. Looking down at our shoes, for instance, we notice that the turquoise floors are the same color as the quaint craftsman home that houses the Leslie restaurant. But of course, most of all it’s the people: Denver and Joy, whom we can see working in the kitchen, and Oliver, whose likeness greets people just inside the door in the form of a black and white photo taken on his 1st birthday.
Of course, there will be comparisons, much in the way that all siblings are sized up and measured against one another. But in the case of Oliver’s and Skylark, it seems fair to guess that, over time, the distance between the two, both physically and metaphorically, will cease to matter. But as we walk out the door, however, our thoughts on the prospect of a return visit, there can be no doubt: Oliver’s is already standing on its own.