TO SPEND ANY AMOUNT of time in Wilson is to feel you’ve encountered a place that’s fallen directly out of the sky. Heading north from Memphis, there are the wide, wide fields of the Delta that spread off like a blanket, uniform to the eye unfamiliar with the subtler cues and totems by which such a landscape can be marked away and defined. But then, arriving in Wilson, there is Tudor architecture, a company town all in one style, a place that, again, feels so disconnected from the elements that would normally tether a town to one place—that if it weren’t anchored in place by the solidly built red-brick structures, it might drift up and away into the horizon.
Of course, this is wrong on several counts.
Do a little looking around and you’ll find the town has been there for a good long while, going all the way back to 1886, when Lee Wilson founded his sawmill, and a company town rose up with it. But there’s more rooted there than just history—something that is amply clear when you look to the 100-acre Wilson Gardens just a little ways up the road and across the train tracks. This gets all the clearer, however, when you stumble across the restaurant where so much of that produce is finding a home, (especially during the spring and summer months): Wilson Cafe.
When chef Joseph Cartwright—who runs the place with his wife, Shari Haley—talks about the produce that winds up on the table of the Wilson Cafe, it’s almost as if all the vegetables were vying for placement in the sentence. “Zucchinisquashtomatookra” he says before noting that really, there’s so much more than that. There are the fruit trees, for example—the many kinds of apples and pears, the nectarines, plums, the limes that’ll wind up behind the bar. Or the green tomatoes. Or the carrots that, as of this writing, ought to be showing up any day now.
But of course, in order to get the full effect, you’ve really got to see the dishes that comprise those ingredients coming out of the kitchen, (even in the winter months, greens from the hoop still make regular appearances). You’ve got to see Shari in the kitchen surrounded by pecan and chocolate chess pies, and the traveling salesmen who linger over pie and coffee and lick their plates clean. Really, in order to see all the ways Joseph and Shari have decidedly made the place their own since opening in December 2013, you’ve got to eat there for yourself.
Although any discussion of Wilson is certainly incomplete without a pointed mention of the windfall the town received when Gaylon Lawrence Sr. bought the whole thing in 2010, thereby energizing a place that might have otherwise languished in the manner of so many small towns, there’s an equally important point to be made: When you spend time in this place, it’s clear a community is taking root in a new and exciting way. And you can taste it.
2 N. Jefferson St, Wilson
Sun. – Tues., 11 a.m. – 2 p.m.;
Wed. – Sat., 11 a.m. – 2 p.m., 5 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.
Strawberry Fields salad, good ol’ burger, “steak and eggs,” scampi and grits, and pie. All. Of. The. Pie.
Big-City Cooking, Small-Town Arkansas
Places that make you wonder how they got where they are (slash thank your lucky stars you found ’em)
DeVito’s It’s an old-school Italian place—spaghetti and meatballs and the like—but it’s the charbroiled rainbow trout that packs the parking lot, owing to the family’s trout-farm history. Think of it as an Ozark twist on your favorite family-owned restaurant in Little Italy. (350 Devitos Loop N., Harrison;
Local Flavor Owned by a sixth-generation Eurekan, this downtown favorite is as eclectic and artsy as the town surrounding it. Grilled salmon, walnut-pesto pasta, pan-seared tilapia—it’s all here, and all utterly delicious. (Don’t miss the sister restaurant, Aquarius Taqueria, if you’re craving authentic Mexican or a mezcal marg.) (71 S. Main St., Eureka Springs; (479) 253-9522)
Fox & Fork Here’s something you shouldn’t do: Browse this quirky Clarksville bistro’s Facebook feed when you’re hungry. Here’s something you most definitely should do: Stop in for a spell on your next Interstate-40 haul. Then order the bacon-pâté-and-tomato-jam-topped BLT and start planning your next visit. (117 S. College Ave., Clarksville; (479) 647-5010)
Skylark Cafe This sweet-as-sugar cafe off U.S. 65 is helmed by a sweet-as-sugar young couple who are churning out dishes that we crave on the regular (namely, those green-chile pork tacos and that pulled-pork Cuban)—annnnd that we often make the drive for. And don’t even get us started on that strawberry pie. (401 High St., Leslie;