I’M GOING TO TELL YOU A SECRET: The wax museum on Hot Springs’ Central Avenue terrifies me. Always has, probably always will—the giant glass windows displaying wax versions of celebrities, their faces falling into the strange catchall area between cartoonishly fake and perplexingly lifelike. So, of course, it’s my luck that the only available parking space for two blocks is right in front of the museum’s entrance. Oh, and it’s also raining. But I have an appointment to catch, so I shudder past the figure of what I think was supposed to be Ronald Reagan and walk south down the avenue.
I’ll be honest and admit that Hot Springs isn’t a city that jumps to mind when I think of a “food city.” It’s not that there aren’t worthwhile restaurants in the area. There certainly are, and you could easily argue that dining options in Hot Springs are the best they’ve been since the city was a gangsters’ hideout. What the city has lacked, however, among its endless string of chain restaurants, both national and local, and even its recent spate of newly opened options, is diversity of tone and atmosphere. A city’s dining scene is not so different from a finely spiced dish: the sweet made sweeter by just a pinch of salt. Likewise, a city full of dive bars shines brightest when contrasted with white-tableclothed fine dining.
The avenue—Central Avenue, that is—is as alive as ever with its strange milieu of galleries, eateries and tourist traps, each one staring blankly across the street at the stately bathhouses that are this street and this town’s raison d’etre. But it’s not the crystal shops and Star Wars museum that have brought me here. Instead, I stop at what is obviously the newest storefront on the block, a building whose entrance looks like it must have been dropped in from New York’s Chelsea neighborhood. Even the sidewalk is a different color, a stark clean white compared to the mottled gray concrete on either side. It’s the entrance to The Waters, the new boutique hotel that houses The Avenue on its first floor. The interior, both of the hotel and the restaurant, is modern and sleek while staying true to its Hot Springs roots. The photos on the wall are vintage images of Central Avenue in its heyday, and the art pieces hanging alongside them are all locally made. As I wait for Casey Copeland, The Avenue’s executive chef, near the bar, I take in the space. A massive bar made of reclaimed wood dominates the front dining room, where the bar is perched precariously in the middle of the floor-to-ceiling windows that look out at the street and Bathhouse Row beyond.
I KNOW THE NAME Casey Copeland. I’ve had his food before, during his tenure as head chef of Little Rock’s SO Restaurant, so I know, to a small extent, what I’m getting myself into—quality ingredients, inventive dishes. His food has a certain playfulness to it, a kind of “don’t tell me what to do” attitude. You can tell he delights in doing the unexpected. Only from his food, I get the feeling that no matter what he’s doing, he’s the kind of person who always looks confident doing it. It’s a trait I wish I had, that confidence that stops shy of being cocky, blended with the natural ability to put those around him at ease.
When I first learned of The Avenue, all I knew was that it was tapas style, large sharable plates meant to be savored by a group of diners rather than eaten solo or by a pair. I didn’t even look at the menu before inviting a few friends and making our reservation.
In brief, our meal was fantastic—course after course of delicately plated, expertly composed dishes. As an appetizer, roasted almonds were couched on snowdrifts made of vanilla, coffee and sugar, waiting to be plucked up and eaten, and a Brussels-sprout salad—deconstructed into its elemental parts with cranberries, pecans, and montasio—made geometric designs across the plate. One of the more elaborate dishes, the spinach and ricotta tortellini, came disassembled, each of the individual tortellini rounds resting in its own furrow of a wavelike plate. Of course, he could have presented a bowl of pasta, but that’s just not the Casey Copeland thing to do.
The plating lends itself to community, a tablewide socialism where each dish is equally shared among diners. The drunken pimento cheese (my new front-runner for best in the state), comes not in a sharable bowl from which each patron might scoop a portion like at other eateries, but as individual islands of cheese adorned with massive sail-like crackers, an unexpected dimension in an all too familiar dish. Tacos made with duck confit, a dish that is thankfully finding its way back onto more and more local menus, is covered with a lime barbecue sauce that, were The Avenue ever to switch focus, would give McClard’s a run for its title of local barbecue supreme.
“PEOPLE ARE SO HUNGRY for [this kind of restaurant].” I’m not sure if his pun is intentional; there’s been a smile on his face since we first started talking 20 minutes before. In that time, he’s been lit up, proud of himself and his restaurant. As we sit at a table near the bar, he’s framed neatly in the giant, east-facing windows like the restaurant itself is presenting his portrait. You can tell the kitchen is where he feels his best, where his creative self can take over and produce food that tiptoes over the line into art—and the city of Hot Springs has allowed him to take full advantage of that.
Casey’s turn at The Avenue is a return of sorts to the Spa City. Before working in Little Rock, he spent several years as the head chef of the Hot Springs Country Club, where he’d gotten to know his diners on a more intimate level, often going into their homes to cook special one-off dinners. It was at those dinners when he first realized that, if local diners were ever given the option, they would flock to a modern fine-dining restaurant. Opening The Avenue, he tells me, gave him a chance to create a new culture of fine dining for the residents of Hot Springs—an opportunity he couldn’t let pass him by.
Halfway through our conversation, he hands me a menu. I scan it over, looking for the dishes I remember from the week before, wanting to know about the course of thought that brought them to my plate. My eyes keep scanning. Where’s the apple salad? The trout rillette? The honey-glazed pork belly?
“I changed it,” he says sheepishly. “We’ll have some staples, but I don’t want to ever get complacent.” It’s the second time he’s rewritten the menu in the restaurant’s first five weeks, each time finding new expressions of flavors with which his diners will be familiar. He admits that writing the menus has come with its own learning curve. A dish that first came with beet chips got a reworking to include tortilla chips after two weeks of slow sales and is now one of the restaurant’s most popular items. Expanding palates is his goal; he doesn’t mind the winding road to get there. The word “crudo,” Italian for raw, resulted in some confusion among diners who were surprised by the plate of raw red snapper that appeared at their table, (others liked raw fish but simply weren’t familiar with the term). “As soon as we changed the name of it, it was like, boom—people ordered it every night.”
He hopes to change what diners expect of Hot Springs, and even of their own cooking. When a guest asks a question, he’s happy to leave the kitchen to talk about technique or ingredients. Want the recipe to the chocolate pie he offers for dessert? Just ask; he’s happy to share. It’s his grandmother’s, and he’s quick to point out that we all learn to cook from following a recipe, so you might as well use his.
Even though the restaurant has only been open a few weeks, Casey is already looking to the future. He asks me if I want to see “out back,” (and trust me, if a chef ever asks you if you’d like to see anything special, you should always say yes). He takes me through the building, where it abuts the steep hillside. Terraces have been built with a winding pathway up the mountain. Soon, this area will become his garden, full of herbs and vegetables, making the food even more local than it already is. He points to the sky, and I see the steel structure of a pedestrian bridge branching off from the hotel’s roof and connecting to the bicycle trail that runs along the cliff edge, some 80 feet above ground level. Soon, bikers and hikers will be able to walk over from the trail, straight into a rooftop bar that will be built over the coming months.
Though the concept of The Avenue might be unheard of in Hot Springs, Casey is banking on the fact that good food is not, and that locals will have a long-term appetite for a cuisine that stretches beyond burgers, catfish and Tex-Mex. Casey is momentarily reflective when I ask him if he’s thought about the restaurant’s long-term future in the city. “People have to be wanting more than they’re currently offered here,” he says. “They have to. They deserve it.”