Lonoke’s Grumpy Rabbit is best new restaurant in Arkansas

The chicken thighs, ribeye, ‘The Board’ and carrot cake at the Grumpy Rabbit in Lonoke. (Jeremy Peppas photos)

Look at Lonoke for fine dining. No, seriously. Lonoke. Fine. Dining.

We had heard about the Grumpy Rabbit that opened this year in downtown Lonoke, and it has an impressive pedigree.

Executive chef is James Hale. He was formerly the sous chef at Andre’s Hillcrest and Spaule Restaurant in Little Rock. Then Hale opened Acadia in Little Rock’s Hillcrest neighborhood and was a James Beard nominee in 2008. The James Beard Award is cooking’s highest honor.

After Acadia closed in 2015, Hale then became executive chef at the Capital Bar and Grill in the Capital Hotel. He was lured to Lonoke by Gina Cox Wiertelak and her husband Jim.

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Lonoke is Gina Wiertelak’s hometown, where she was a high school basketball star and the gym at Lonoke High School is named for her. She took her basketball talents to Memphis State University, married Jim, then set up shop in Shelby County, where he was chief operating officer for Sedgwick Claims Management and she was president of the University of Memphis Fast Break Club.

Still involved in her hometown, the Wiertelaks made the decision to move back to Lonoke and own and operate the Grumpy Rabbit. 

It was a good choice, at least for Lonoke and the local dining scene.

The Grumpy Rabbit hasn’t been open a year and has already managed to become a destination restaurant, even in the middle of a global health crisis.

Occupying a two-story space at 105 W. Front St., Grumpy Rabbit is a long and skinny space with tables and chairs and a long banquette at the front of the house. The ground level then transitions to a bar and more tables and chairs before exiting the building to a patio dining area. Upstairs there’s more seating, plus a party room and additional outdoor seating.

The only clue to the basketball background of the owner is a state title banner hanging discreetly on the wall on the way to the restrooms.

The interior was designed by Lonoke’s Natalie Biles of Shine Interior Design Studio and was a family project since her husband, Ryan, was the architect.

The front room at Lonoke’s Grumpy Rabbit. (Shine Interior Design Studio)

The design is fun and funky and doesn’t feel like you are in an agricultural town of 4,000, 20 minutes from Little Rock. It feels like, in the very best way, that you’ve been dropped into one of John Currence’s very fine eating joints in Oxford, Mississippi or Sean Brock’s Husk in Nashville, Tennessee.

The food is also that caliber good.

On our visit, we made a reservation on OpenTable, but it wouldn’t have been a problem to get a table walking up.

We started with “The Board,” which is Grumpy Rabbit’s version of charcuterie, with sausage, a grilled chunk of bologna, sliced baguette, pickled vegetables, an extremely good savory cheesecake with tomato relish and bacon egg salad. 

As for taste, the pickled and purple whole carrot was intriguing, but we could have skipped the egg salad. 

Truthfully, just a couple of those mini, savory cheesecakes would have been sufficient. Maybe it is the pandemic and eating out of styrofoam, but that first taste was, for now, the best bite of 2021.

Entrees are straightforward, with a choice in each main protein plus a vaguely vegetarian mac and cheese. We went with the Braised Chicken Thighs and a Ribeye.

The chicken came with a creamy leek orzo pasta, while the steak was paired with some well-made french fries.

Each also came with a whole, roasted carrot, playing on the rabbit theme.

Dessert was a delicious single-layer carrot cake with approximately one pound of cream cheese frosting, candied pecans and a bourbon caramel sauce.

We passed on bar offerings, though the cocktails that went to other tables looked extremely appealing.

Service was good. It got a little chaotic as the restaurant started to fill up though, but our server powered through.

The tab was in the $90 range, sans alcohol, for the three-course meal.

Again, passing on stars or grades, but the Grumpy Rabbit is the best new restaurant in Arkansas, and maybe the South. 

So, I’m so sorry, hop on over when you get the chance.