It’s been five years since South on Main restaurant opened and with it, a new chapter of Little Rock dining. The bellwether for innovative eateries led by a generation of eager young chefs, South on Main continues to set the standard for approachably elegant Southern cooking.
You’d never know one-half of the brains behind it, Chef Matt Bell, started out about as far from Dixie as the elk grazing the Bitterroot Mountains of his native Montana.
“People ask me what Montana cuisine is and it is none,” he said. “There’s not enough history there. If you have a multi-generational family there, 1860 is about the earliest that goes back. You don’t see thick recipe books in people’s houses. It doesn’t really have a [food] heritage or lineage.”
Bell set out to forge his own culinary legacy, a path made straight when, about 15 years ago, he met a dance student from Arkansas attending the University of Montana at Missoula.
“He was a server at a restaurant where my friend worked,” Amy Kelley Bell remembers. “When we were still just friends, he made dinner for a whole group of us one night and I was like, ‘Man you’re really a talented chef, why are you working front of the house?’ And he said, ‘Well, I’d have to go to culinary school to be a chef.’ And I said, ‘Well, then go to culinary school.'”
“After that we started dating and as I was finishing up my senior year of college he said, ‘OK here are five culinary schools I’m interested in; I want you to pick the city that you want to live in.'”
The Bells headed for Austin, Texas, where Matt attended Le Cordon Bleu before the couple moved to Arkansas. Matt climbed the ladder of his craft, working at local mainstays Ristorante Capeo and Ashley’s Restaurant at the Capital Hotel while Amy landed a gig with a research and consulting firm.
Together they talked about the restaurant they would one day open, though they didn’t strategically plan on what South on Main is today. Rather, they capitalized on an opportunity created by the Oxford American magazine relocating to Little Rock’s South Main neighborhood with a desire to have a restaurant of similar aesthetic next door.
“We had talked about many, many, many ideas for restaurants. None of them were this,” Amy said. “When Oxford American approached us about opening the restaurant, they had a pretty clear idea of what they wanted and that it be focused around the South. Matt took that idea and interpreted it in a really beautiful way.”
“A lot of Southern food in central Arkansas is geared pretty heavily toward creole, Cajun cuisine and so Matt decided this should be a reflection of the entire South and not just the one piece of it.”
South on Main was an immediate success, thanks to Matt’s inspired menu rooted in new takes on familiar Southern dishes and Amy’s eclectic, Antebellum chic interior touches and cocktails to match. As it turned out, the eatery and performance space also helped fuel a renaissance in a neighborhood now considered one of the trendiest in the city, even though Matt is quick to deflect much of that credit to earlier entrepreneurs.
“We didn’t really choose this neighborhood, although I think we got into the space at a really wonderful time,” he said. “We didn’t count on or expect what’s happened on Main Street south of 630; I think the real visionaries down here were Boulevard Bread Company and The Root Café.”
The Bells have worked nearly as hard in philanthropic activities as they have in the kitchen, in the dining room or behind the bar. Among the organizations that have sparked their passion is No Kid Hungry, which works locally through the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance and for which they have organized an annual benefit dinner featuring all-star chef pals from around the country. They’re also heavily involved with Little Rock’s Our House Shelter and Thea Foundation in North Little Rock.
“What’s the saying? ‘To whom much has been given much is expected,'” Matt said. “That’s always rung true for me.”
Having been married for a decade, the Bells move and think as one, while maintaining their own distinct points of view. There’s palpable chemistry between them, even wearied from the lunch rush, that not unlike the food coming out of their kitchen, boils down to simple yet satisfying elements.
“No one knew what grits were in Montana,” Amy offered by way of example. “The guy I dated before [Matt] was horrified at the way I made my cheese grits, because that’s a lot of cheese and a lot of butter and it’s delicious.”
She steals a glance at Matt and beams.
“He did not shy away from the cheese grits,” Amy said. “And I was like, ‘That’s the guy you marry.'”
Photo by Joshua Asante.