The Griffin Restaurant, located in the former Griffin Auto Company building at 117 E. Locust St. in downtown El Dorado, offers only farm-to-your-fork items on its menu. It’s part of the Murphy Arts District Phase I downtown renovation.
Going MAD for Griffin’s
Downtown El Dorado opens farm-to-fork eatery
By Deborah Horn and Photography by Deborah Horn
At four, John E. Peters III was shucking oysters, at 14 he was washing dishes at a local eatery, and by 29, he was sauté cook for New Orleans’ Commander’s Palace when it earned the James Beard’s “Best Restaurant in the United States” award in 1996. Now, he’s The Griffin Restaurant’s executive chef, and while he admits the award was one of the high points of his career, Peters says he’s not done yet.
The Griffin Restaurant dishes up farm-to-fork Southern fare with a flare for Creole cuisine, set inside the recently renovated Griffin Auto Company, 117 E. Locust St. in downtown El Dorado. It’s part of the El Dorado Murphy Arts District or MAD.
The old Griffin showroom was transformed into a kitchen, and the auto repair shop is now the dining room. Although it’s thoroughly modern, it retains some of the original features like the elaborate floor and wall tile work. The restaurant’s revamped interior is industrial, upscale but not uptight, casual and children are welcome.
Downstairs, where the Ford cars were assembled—in the old days, cars were often shipped in parts and assembled at the dealership—is the 2,000-seat Griffin Music Hall, says Bob Tarren, MAD’s CMO.
Left to right: The Griffin Restaurant in El Dorado is upscale but not uptight. Patrons pack the restaurant at lunchtime. A floor to ceiling glass panel offers patrons a glimpse into Executive Chef John E. Peters III’s world at the Griffin Restaurant. Peters was the sauté cook for New Orleans’ Commander’s Palace when it earned the James Beard’s “Best Restaurant in the United States” award in 1996.
It’s all locally sourced
Chef, as others call him, is soft-spoken and his lazy Southern drawl marks him as hailing from Monroe, La., but in the kitchen, he moves with intent and the speed of sprinter. He may speak in low tones, but his specialty dishes speak volumes. Like his Tournedos, two fillet mignons on top of grilled green tomatoes, one smothered in a red wine reduction and the other in a béarnaise sauce, or his fresh-from-the-Gulf-to-the-table red snapper.
Of course, he plays tribute to Arkansas’ favorite sons with his Razorback Mac dish that’s made with Arkansas-raised pork. There’s also Arkansas quail and catfish on the menu.
The Griffin Restaurant also offers handcrafted libations and live music every Thursday evening. Most ingredients on the Griffin Restaurant’s menu are grown or produced in Arkansas, but since the El Dorado restaurant sits within 20 miles of the northern Louisiana border, they hope to tap into any fresh produce available there as well, says Elizabeth Young, MAD’s Farm and Sustainable Initiatives director. It would allow them to extend the calendar of fresh menu offerings, such as blueberries. According to Young, produce usually ripens a few weeks earlier in the El Dorado area than Central Arkansas. To make life easier for Chef, she’s putting together a spreadsheet—a harvest calendar of sorts—that let’s him know what item will be available when.
“It allows me to plan and highlight items during their peak,” Peters says.
Peters, with past experience cooking with farm-fresh products and menu planning, says he looks forward to the demands of this spring when the “crops come on.” It will require him to dig deep to create new dishes with the bounty of fresh veggies and fruits, as well as allow him to add a fresh flare to old favorites. “We will change the menu to reflect the season and offer chef specials every day, along with small plates so people can taste the amazing difference between fresh and canned,” Peters says.
It ain’t easy to be farm fresh
Over a basket of Griffin’s signature melt-in-your-mouth hush puppies, served warm with local jelly and butter, and a boat of barbecued shrimp, Young talks about her role of cultivating relationships with suppliers and increasing community outreach.
In the past, Young farmed in North Carolina and worked for the Rockefeller Foundation planting an orchard at Petit Jean. She says local sourcing is easy, but keeping a steady supply can be difficult. “We attempt to acquire as much food locally as possible, and we are striving to set our own quality standards,” Young explains, by relying on producers who use environmentally sound practices.
She points to a growing list of partner farms’ plaques hung on the restaurant’s dining room wall, as talks about niche North Little Rock’s Ben E. Keith is filling. The food distributor offers Arkansas-sourced options that help ensure quality, adequate quantity and on-time delivery, and that helps keep Peters’ staff of 48 moving plates from kitchen to table, Young says. In turn, “It makes for a better dining experience,” says Tarren.
There are some culinary restrictions when preparing a farm-to-table menu. For example, there is sometimes a limited selection available, depending on the season, but Young’s goal is to grow the restaurant’s offerings and client base through marketing, education and by starting a farmers’ market right outside the restaurant’s patio seating area.
Left to right: Griffin Restaurant’s Executive Chef John E. Peters III works his magic in the kitchen preparing a dish with fresh from the boat to the table Gulf Coast Shrimp. Griffin Restaurant’s Boat of Barbecued Shrimp isn’t prepared ahead of time but cooked “la minute,” or made only after ordered. Arkansans can’t find delicate crab cakes like these in the frozen section of their neighborhood super center but it can be found on the menu of the Griffin Restaurant in El Dorado. Elizabeth Young, director for Murphy Arts District Farm and Sustainable Initiatives, says the Griffin Restaurant is attempting to grow its list of Arkansas partner farms. The collaboration benefits both their patrons and farmers.
It benefits both restaurant and grower
“The more farmers can sell to Griffin Restaurant or at the [MAD] Farmers’ Market, the more willing they will be to grow more or try their hand at new things,” she reasons.
MAD is hosting their fourth Southern Food & Wine Festival in early May, and their farmers’ market is set to open this spring. “It will give folks a chance to sample fresh,” she says. Young says she’s reaching out to the El Dorado School District and encouraging schools to start their own gardens. “Kids get excited about growing vegetables,” she says.
Expanding their horizons
“We’re [the restaurant] less than six months old,” but already Young says they’re looking forward to the future and the opportunities that the expanding Arts District will bring. Tarren explains that the Griffin Restaurant is only part of El Dorado’s Phase I downtown revamp and new construction. It also includes the new MAD Amphitheater with the capacity to accommodate 8,000, the Farmers’ Market, the indoor 2,000-person Griffin Music Hall, a plaza and a children’s two-acre play-scape, yet to be built. Phase II includes an art gallery and the restoration of the Rialto Theater.