IT’S A Wednesday evening, and I’m making my way to the reopening of Williams Soul Food in Bentonville. Given that fried chicken is the restaurant’s specialty, and fried chicken is my what-I-would-eat-for-my-last-meal meal, I’m pretty fired up. But I’m also disappointed … in myself.
I can’t shake the fact that before its just-now-ended six-month hiatus, Williams Soul Food had been open since 2012 in Northwest Arkansas and, since 2014, has been only 5 miles from my house. Five. Miles. And it wasn’t on my radar. In covering the food scene in Bentonville, I now realize I’ve been way too focused on all the shiny new downtown restaurants. Bottom line: I’ve failed you, dear reader, but sadder still: I’ve failed me. When I think of all the fried chicken gone uneaten by me over these past few years, I shudder. As my dinner companion and I pull up to the restaurant, I vow that tonight’s the night I begin making up for lost time.
Although tonight is the soft reopening of the restaurant, the place is bustling. Thankfully, we manage to score a table toward the back. As we wait for another friend to join us, I take a look around. The décor isn’t just cool and understated, but authentically cool and understated. Red tablecloths cover the tables. Gray walls are bedecked with artfully placed records and album covers. There’s Michael Jackson’s Thriller. There’s Rick James’ Garden of Love. There’s Diana Ross’ I’m Coming Out.
A woman in a red Williams Soul Food T-shirt passes our table balancing two plates of fried chicken and fixin’s. From the online stalking I’ve done of the restaurant, I recognize her as Mrs. Williams. The Mrs. Williams. For their part, when the occupants at the table she’s serving recognize her, they hop up and take turns giving her a hug.
“We missed you!”
“It’s so good to see you!”
It’s a scene that’s repeated several times throughout the evening.
When I dig into my own plate of fried chicken, not to mention the “sides” I’ve ordered, I begin to understand the collective sense of jubilation at the restaurant’s return.
The chicken is everything fried chicken should be. Crisp, perfectly seasoned, golden-brown skin: check. Meat that’s juicy and flavorful in its own right: check. The clincher is when I catch myself sucking the flavor off the bones left on my plate. Fact: Fried chicken done right is bone-sucking good.
But it’s when I begin to tuck into my “sides” that what this place is fully dawns on me. As I inhale my mac ‘n’ cheese, collard greens, purple hull peas and mashed potatoes with gravy, I realize this is a restaurant that views sides not as supporting players, but as stars in their own right—a sure sign that you’re dining in a real-deal Southern restaurant.
Case in point: This mac ‘n’ cheese is super creamy. These collard greens are smoky and tender and popping with flavor. These purple hull peas are rich and toothsome, and these mashed potatoes are simply soul warming. (And yes, I ordered four sides instead of just the two that come with the two-piece fried-chicken dinner. It’s called research.)
The topper to the meal is a slice of Mrs. Williams’ homemade sweet potato pie. Here’s the deal with sweet potato pie: There’s sweet potato pie, and then there’s sweet potato pie. The former is often indistinguishable from pumpkin pie, while the latter is unmistakably sweet potato pie with the earthiness of the potatoes left unmuddled by an overload of sugar and spice. And this sweet potato pie is, assuredly, sweet potato pie.
While this meal has left me sated and satisfied appetitewise, I find myself starving for answers. Who is the woman who cooks this food? And where did she go for six months? And what made her decide to come back?
About a week and a half later, I manage to catch Mrs. Williams between lunch and dinner and payroll and all the many things she’s juggling as the proprietress of Williams Soul Food.
After prepping the line for the upcoming dinner service, she sits down with me at a booth near the door and generously begins to share her story.
Mrs. Williams is Lora Williams, and she was born and raised in Hazen, Arkansas. After marrying, she and her husband settled in his hometown of Des Arc, Arkansas, a city on the White River in the Delta, to raise their two daughters and one son.
A beautiful woman with a warm, open smile, Mrs. Williams’ eyes light up and she becomes animated when she begins to talk about cooking.
She has loved cooking for as long as she can remember, she tells me. Her first memories are cooking with her mother and her godmother. In fact, every recipe she makes at the restaurant is her mother’s recipe.
“I cooked every day for the kids, home-cooked meals and snacks,” she tells me. “We never ate out.”
But it was only her family and friends who got to enjoy her cooking back then. Although she dreamed of opening her own restaurant, Des Arc was simply too small a town to make such an endeavor work financially. So for 20 years, she worked as a cosmetologist. Then after her three children were grown, she decided it was time to start a new chapter, along with her husband, in a new place. In December 2006, the couple visited their son, Marty Jr., who had recently moved to Northwest Arkansas, and instantly fell in love with the place. One month later, they relocated there.
Northwest Arkansas was a place where Mrs. Williams believed she could finally make her dream of owning her own restaurant come true. To that end, in 2012, Williams Soul Food opened its doors as a 10-table spot in a small house in Lowell. It didn’t take long for the restaurant to grow out of its Lowell location and into a larger Rogers location before ultimately landing in its Bentonville spot on on Southeast Macy Road in 2014.
From the beginning, the menu focused on fried chicken and wings, with a bevy of sides and daily specials, including smothered pork chops, meatloaf, chicken spaghetti, fried catfish, barbecue ribs and pulled-pork sandwiches. (Some days when Mrs. Williams was in a “cooking mood,” there would be three daily specials.) And of course, Mrs. Williams’ homemade pies have been on offer since day one. In addition to sweet potato pie, there was chocolate pie, pecan pie, buttermilk pie, cherry cheese pie and coconut cream pie, among others. Plus, the occasional cream cheese pound cake and peach cobbler also made appearances.
“We’ve always served good home cookin’,” Mrs. Williams says, “and we’ve always been a little mom and pop restaurant. I want to feel the closeness. I like to show all my clients love.”
“They are clients, not customers.”
Since opening the restaurant, her son, Marty Jr., aka Big Baby BBQ, has been her right-hand man in cooking, waiting on clients and helping with the business side of things. Her other children also help out from time to time with the cooking and serving.
It was back in the summer of 2018 that the family decided to close down the Bentonville location to try their hand at running a food truck.
“The day we closed the door, I thought, What did I do?” Mrs. Williams says. “I got teary-eyed whenever I passed this building.”
Cooking out of a food truck simply was not for her, she tells me. “It wasn’t my kitchen,” she says. “There wasn’t enough space. Here, if I want to make biscuits, I can. There, I couldn’t.”
But what Mrs. Williams missed most of all were her clients. “We have so many regulars, and they’re like family to me,” she explains.
And that family was crushed when the Bentonville location closed, and the Williams family moved their business to a food truck.
“This is the worst news ever,” one commenter posted on the restaurant’s Facebook page.
“What are we gonna do!” another wrote.
“Are you serious!” another said. “I’m overwhelmed!”
When the family announced back in October 2018 that they would reopen their brick-and-mortar restaurant in their previous Bentonville location, hundreds of people gleefully responded to the news. “Sugar, you and your great family are about to be busy,” one commenter said.
Truer words were never spoken, but Mrs. Williams isn’t complaining. “It’s so heartwarming to be back,” she tells me.
As we wrap up our chat, a woman who had settled at a table next to us (and was likely enjoying the conversation as much as I was) turns around and says: “We’re so glad you’re back! That fried chicken! Yeah!”
“Yeah!” I concur—a bit late to the party perhaps, but better late than never.