First Taste: Petit & Keet
A history lesson with Little Rock’s kings of culinary reinvention
As a child I, like many kids my age, found church services more than a little tedious. I wasn’t good at sitting through an episode of after-school TV, much less an early-morning sermon. Often enough, I would find myself flipping through the Bible, skimming the pages and looking for familiar names. It was then that I found what came to be one of my favorite parts of the book: the begats.
These are the verses or chapters near the beginning of each book that serve as family tree, a genealogy spanning millennia, because apparently it was nothing to live for 800 years. My fascination with these verses was in part the names, the unusual coupling of consonants and vowels. Enos and Enoc. Mahaleleel and Methuselah. Herzon and Ram, who, for good measure, begat Amminadab, who begat Nahshon, who begat Salmon, of course.
But more than just the names, I was fascinated by the tangible link between generations, the untold decisions and experiences that each father had left for his son, the way you see one man’s effect on history. It’s a similar feeling I have at 9 a.m. on a bright Friday morning standing in the west Little Rock parking lot of Petit & Keet, the restaurant’s name emblazoned in red across the front. If ever there were two names who begat the Little Rock restaurant scene as we know it, surely it’s those.
I find Jim Keet, the man I’m there to meet, in the main dining room. He moved to Arkansas in 1975 to open the first Wendy’s franchise, though to most, he’s known for opening Taziki’s Mediterranean Cafe with his two sons. What started in 2008 with a single restaurant grew to more than 70 locations by the time Jim stepped down as CEO in 2016.
In the soft golden light of morning, the dining room seems almost gilded, like a massive machine waiting to be switched on. What at first appear to be large-windowed walls reveal themselves to be full-length garage doors waiting to be rolled up on a Friday night. “We wanted to do something really special for the state,” Jim says. It’s a phrase he’ll say several times throughout our conversation. It’s clear that for him and his business partner, Louis Petit, Petit & Keet is not just a restaurant but a love letter to a state and a city that have given them so much.
But to really understand how Petit & Keet came to be, you have to look all the way back to 1970s Little Rock. While the ’70s represented a decade of change across the country, for Little Rock, they marked the fastest increase in population the city had ever known. With a new influx of residents, local diners began to ask for more from the local dining scene. In 1975, they got their answer in the form of Jacques and Suzanne, a fine-dining restaurant located at the top of what is now Regions Bank tower in downtown Little Rock. When the restaurant opened, Louis Petit was hired from his native Belgium to train the service staff and act as maître d’. When the restaurant closed in 1986, Louis went on to open his own restaurant, Maison Louis, on the same property where Petit & Keet now stands. Eventually, Louis would retire and leave Little Rock for Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, where he’d open up several successful restaurants with his sons.
Though they had never worked together, in recent years, a friendship had developed between Louis and Jim, one that was bolstered when Jim and his family bought a home in nearby Destin. “I had asked Louis over to have a glass of wine one night, and he brought a bottle,” Jim tells me. “Four or five bottles later, I just asked, Why don’t we do a restaurant together?” That was four years ago. What took them so long? “We looked at so many locations, but when this became available,” he waves his hands around the room, “it was perfect.”
The restaurant’s location, though seemingly out of the way, actually holds a significant place in Little Rock dining history. Not only had the site once been home to Maison Louis; it had previously been home to 1620 Restaurant (eventually renamed 1620 Savoy), an award-winning restaurant that first opened in 1990. As is so often the case in the restaurant world, what was initially planned as a simple renovation quickly turned into a massive retrofitting of the existing building, with massive outdoor patios, a sidewalk patio and game courts figuring into the restaurant’s final design.
I’d eaten dinner there the night before, not knowing what to expect. There’s always a giddiness to visiting new restaurants. It’s almost like a blind date, not knowing what you’re in for, what to expect, how the restaurant’s personality will mesh with your own. Petit & Keet, however, is full of surprises. Walking through the restaurant, at every turn you’re met with a different ambiance and atmosphere. While the main dining room is chic and upscale, the bar is raucous and casual. Activity on the patio revolves around a central fire pit, ringed with oversized lounge furniture where guests can watch games of Baggo being played on the restaurant’s outdoor court. “A lot of this,” Jim says of the design, “came from us just wanting to give Little Rock a totally new experience. We started with a totally blank slate and thought about what we really wanted to accomplish.”
Where we’re seated looks down on the dining room’s wine bar, a smaller, more private area where I’d been seated during my visit the night before. It’s the purview of Susie Long, Petit & Keet’s in-house wine guru and one of the few certified sommeliers working in the state. During my dinner, I’d put myself in her hands, letting her steer me where she wanted, letting her navigate the restaurant’s wine list. We’d given her a bit of an unexpected challenge: to pair six of the eight entrees with a single bottle. She didn’t hesitate. “You’ve ordered everything but beef,” she said as she refilled our water glasses, but you could tell that mentally she was scrolling through the dozens of wines she had on offer. “It’s an unusual pairing, but I’ve got a Napa Valley rosé that’s going to be perfect with your pork chop.” Not being one to challenge an expert, I said yes.
The dinner was, in no uncertain terms, excellent. The menu is a contemporary blend of Southern-tinged staples, like a pork chop cooked pearly white and served on a bed of sweet potato and broccolini, or rice hoecakes served with a sweet corn succotash and banana-pepper butter. These are the recipes of Arkansas, flavors familiar to us from our heritage. But for every Southern staple, there is a dish that bears the hallmarks of modern fusion cuisine: fresh salmon is marinated in miso and a seafood pasta is bathed in a tomato beurre blanc and shavings of pecorino. One of the most surprising entrees, a seemingly out-of-place lobster roll, demands attention, promising the allure of oceanside summers that even Arkansas’ most beautiful lakes can’t fulfill. And of course, it all worked perfectly with the rosé.
Back in the dining room, the restaurant is beginning to come alive around us. Floors are being mopped, and delivery trucks are arriving outside. Before I leave, I ask Jim if he thinks he’ll end up franchising Petit & Keet. “Perhaps,” he says. “This is my 149th restaurant, and it’s the first one I’ve ever chosen to put my name on. I want this to stay iconic. … I don’t think there will ever be another Petit & Keet.”
In a city the size of Little Rock, and in a restaurant culture as insular as Little Rock’s, I often think about the ways in which local chefs and restaurateurs and even their dishes are all related. So much of Little Rock’s culinary history can be traced back to Jacque and Suzanne’s, and the chefs that Louis Petit worked with there and in his later restaurants. In many cases, it was those chefs who trained the current crop of leading culinary trendsetters, a lineage of taste that has shaped the city’s palate in a way most will never know. In a way, eating at Petit & Keet, opened by some of Little Rock’s original food masterminds, is like eating a history that is only just now beginning to repeat itself.