This Saturday, Aug. 19, Little Rock will finally get a taste of one of the most anticipated restaurants in recent years, George's Little Rock.
The Heights' new eatery has been in the works for roughly two years, teasing hungry locals that it would soon serve up "Italian excellence with local taste," though sharing little else until recent weeks.
The 1930s bungalow at 5510 Kavanaugh Blvd. that George's calls home has long been a staple of the city's restaurant scene, most recently as the beloved Cafe Prego. Though the structure needed a lot of work, new owners Mary Olive and John Stephens refused to tear it down and instead chose to restore the building, resulting in a space that is equal parts familiar and totally new.
"What's here is recognizable," Mary Olive says. "What we loved so much was that the two previous restaurants kept the layout of the residence and really embraced it. That afforded us intimate dining rooms, but also allowed us to give them all totally different personalities. You can have completely different experiences all under the same roof."
George's consists of a few very distinct areas: an entry bar, traditional dining rooms, a sunny porch room, an outdoor patio and a hidden speakeasy with the name "Barnaby." The restaurant has a capacity of 93 guests, and was reimagined by Charlotte-based designer Rebecca Dickson Callis. The walls also pay homage to Cafe Prego by displaying some of its famous artwork, Razorbacks and Tupac included.
Behind George's is a team of Little Rock natives, each a powerhouse in their own right, whose intertwined roots seem almost destined to come together in a project just like this one.
"First and foremost, we're all passionate about Little Rock and want to see it continue to grow and thrive," Mary Olive says. "That alone is a huge part of why and how this happened."
The couple had spent several years away from their hometown in various cities across the globe, falling in love at and with the restaurant scenes in New York, London and beyond. When they moved back to Little Rock three years ago to raise a family, they saw an opportunity to recreate what they loved most about the restaurants from their travels, but in a way that felt true to their hometown.
John and his childhood friend David Hesselbein (Cafe Prego, Heights Taco and Tamale Co.) had toyed around with launching other dining concepts, but when Hesselbein learned Cafe Prego wouldn't survive the pandemic, they pulled in another life-long friend, Greg Baber (also of Cafe Prego and Yellow Rocket Concepts). From there, another Little Rock connection brought in acclaimed Fayetteville-based chef Wes Mickel, and the team went to work building out plans and utilizing their combined decades of restaurant experience and connections.
"Wes, David and Greg are the heart and soul of this place," Mary Olive says. "Their passion and dedication to George's has blown me away. We knew they were going to be wonderful, but they have really exceeded all expectations that were already high."
From day one, each step bringing George's to life has been steeped in collaboration.
"Everyone threw down on the menu," Mickel says. "It's always better with more minds, but David and Greg have worked in this building for years. They know it, they know what works with the layout, what's feasible from the cooks."
The resulting menu is a lineup of elevated Italian cuisine with flavors pulled from various parts of Europe as well as the West Coast. Many dishes are familiar ones, but each enriched by prioritizing from-scratch elements and fresh and seasonal ingredients.
"We have a lot of great cooks in the kitchen, and their job is to do simple things really, really well." says Mickel, who has come a long way from his high school days washing dishes at The Purple Cow, including stints at Napa Valley's esteemed The Restaurant at Meadowood and launching Argus Cidery in Austin, Texas.
"Mary Olive and I have both been really lucky to do a lot of fine dining, but what we realized is that we love simple pastas done well," John says. "So we wanted that focus and to build out from there."
"It may not be the first thing you see in the dining room," Mickel says, "but to us, those simple things like the noodles that comprise this massive part of our menu, we need to be making those."
While the extensive pasta and bread program is certainly one of the stars of the show (the focaccia is Mary Olive's favorite item on the menu), the signature dishes are sure to become fast favorites among guests, including the bistecca alla Arkansas featuring a rotating, local, cast iron pan-roasted cut, and the chicken parmesan (her second favorite).
Behind George's two bars, no less attention had been paid to the drink menu. There, patrons will be able to choose from a lineup of signature cocktails and a rotating seasonal menu, also featuring the freshest ingredients.
"Our signature cocktails are all very classic," Hesselbein says, noting the speakeasy was a big inspiration for flavors. "Honestly, why tinker with the classics when you can just serve them really well? Especially our signature negroni."
Hesselbein, who earned his bartending chops at Heights Taco before becoming George's general manager and operating partner, is particularly proud of the chamomile-infused whiskey Caprini Martini on the summer menu, and most enjoys sipping the refreshing honeydew margarita rimmed with Tajin.
George's approachable wine list is mostly focused on Italian and Californian bottles, as well as some from France. David Cone, formerly of Southern Glazer's distribution, even took a break from retirement to help curate the selection.
"We've been able to lean on a lot of really great and talented neighbors, and we're really thankful for that," Hesselbein says.
There is one element everyone on the George's team wants to make very clear: Come as you are.
"We really want people to feel comfortable here no matter what they're wearing or who they're bringing," Mary Olive says. "We encourage people to bring their families or to get dressed up and have a nice night out. We just want people to feel comfortable, and we're not taking ourselves too seriously here. I mean, we have negroni milkshakes and gelato sundaes you can order with little golf pencils."
Behind the scenes, the team is well aware of the task awaiting them and of the hype that has been steadily growing since their first announcement in March 2022. There are plans to eventually roll out a weekend brunch menu, exclusive to-go items and mocktails. There may even be another potential future restaurant concept in the works. When it comes to opening weekend, however, they know they will be compared to Cafe Prego, they know the seemingly untouchable status of a neighborhood icon and they know the impact one can have on a city. And that's what they're aiming for.
John envisions visiting a few times a week, both with kids and without, and seeing the patio full of friends on cool evenings catching up for happy hour. Mary Olive imagines all the birthdays, the first dates, the anniversaries and other life moments that will take place within George's walls. Mickel anticipates fostering a team that shares the same lightning-in-a-bottle passion as the founding group.
"It's such a grand thing to say that you're striving to become an institution in a community, but my ambition is for this place to be that," Mickel says. "We know that if this is going to be something special, it's not going to be from something we force, but something that we do with our staff, our customers and our community."