Pushing toward Bentonville, Ark., I thought of my great-grandfather meandering through the foothills of the Ouachita Mountains in his blue Ford pickup. A company man for Purina Mills and traveling for work, his journey from Fort Worth should have ended in Broken Bow, Okla., but he got lost.
I found myself driving the same path almost six decades later, struck by the same pastoral view that compelled my Papa Ernie to purchase a plot of land on that serendipitous detour.
Friends in tow, we marveled at the beauty of the landscape dotted with treetops fit for roaming giants plucking from what looked like endless florets of leafy green broccoli. A one-tank drive gave my best friends and me the gift of hours of catching up before our weekend in Bentonville began.
From its embrace of art and stewardship of community to refined gastronomy and a strong connection to nature, this new American town inspires a feeling that you can’t quite put your finger on.
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Rounding the corner onto Walton Drive sparked excitement and shrieks of delight. If Pleasantville existed, we had arrived.
Hip, hip hotel
Just north of downtown Bentonville’s square and a quick bike ride to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, 21c Museum Hotel would be our home for the next two nights. Contemporary artwork bursting with shocks of color seemed to jump off the gallery-white walls. The bar at The Hive was buzzing. The whole place pulsed.
The transformational concept of 21c Museum Hotels that integrates art into an otherwise quotidian hotel stay is what encouraged general manager Emmanuel Gardinier, who has an acclaimed record of hotel management from Switzerland to the French West Indies, to move to Bentonville. He says he loves small places and the down-to-earth, normal sense of hospitality that he says exists in the birthplace of Wal-Mart.
Seasonally, the Bentonville Farmers Market overtakes the center of the city. We cruised into town as the market dispersed, barely missing the opportunity to admire bounty from local farmers and artisans that has kept this ritual alive for 40 years.
Once inside our luxury, double-queen room, we settled in for a nap before dinner downstairs.
Inside The Hive, chef Matthew McClure elegantly dances between culinary innovation and traditional country cooking that is intrinsically tied to his Arkansan upbringing.
Named a semifinalist for Best Chef: South in the 2016 James Beard Foundation Awards and the People’s Best New Chef Midwest 2015 by Food & Wine, McClure allows local ingredients to shine in truly memorable dishes.
I happily sipped a rhubarbarella, made with gin, rhubarb tea liqueur, chartreuse and lemon, while eyeing the evening’s offerings. I snuck a taste of my friend’s house-made soda, touted as a snickerdoodle in liquid form.
Much to the chagrin of our neighbors, we ogled the cornbread with stupid sweet smiles usually reserved for babies or puppies, and studied its composition intently. It required a fork.
We decided to forgo the Arkansas trail mix, a combination of cheddar straws, soybeans, black walnuts and candied pecans, for more delectable first bites such as pimento cheese toasts with bacon jam.
Sous-vide cooked egg in spicy broth, grilled quail with local nectarines, diver scallops and Copper River sockeye salmon atop baby root vegetables left us with no room for dessert. So we thought, until a flame of green apple cotton candy appeared to end our meal on a sweet note.
We walked to the warmly lit Foxhole Public House to choose a nightcap from inventive smoked cocktails and expertly made classics. It’s difficult to imagine that Bentonville was a dry county only four years ago.
For a substantial late-night bite, a selection of steamed buns or Bomb Bread, signature scratch-baked bread stuffed with good things like caramelized onions, Gouda and Gruyere, did the trick.
Bentonville wakes up slowly on Sundays. We slept in and made our way to Pressroom for breakfast before a day of exploring the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
If Pressroom executive chef Michael Robertshaw were joining us for brunch that morning, he would have suggested meeting at Taqueria Vega, a little haunt off 14th Street that most chefs know about.
Yeyo’s Mexican Grill, famous for its street tacos, is another favorite of Robertshaw’s and locals alike. The owners operate Rios Family Farms, a six-acre organic farm that provides the bulk of the fresh produce he uses.
Robertshaw says he left a career-high in Seattle to get in on the ground floor of something special in Bentonville.
“Every day, it’s amazing,” he says. Pressroom started as a coffee shop three years ago and has since evolved into a gathering place for every meal.
My great-grandfather was taught how to farm the land with compassion, a practice carried on by generations of families dedicated to doing things the right way amid intentional modernization and tremendous growth. Since 2000, the population of Bentonville has skyrocketed by 56 percent.
Open in its new location since January, Pressroom offers a seasonal menu that fluctuates with what looks great in the fields. We enjoyed fresh grapefruit juice mimosas, buttermilk beignets and avocado toast with mashed spring peas, arugula, chimichurri, radish and egg served on coveted Steelite plates shipped from England.
We popped next door to ONYX Coffee Lab for a quick caffeine jolt before a day full of art. These impeccably roasted coffee beans can be found on rotation locally at Craftwork Coffee Co. in Fort Worth.
Main event: Crystal Bridges
Crystal Bridges was founded in 2005 by the Walton Family Foundation — a concerted effort to celebrate the American spirit in a setting that unites the power of art with the beauty of nature. This November marks the museum’s fifth anniversary.
Because it is nestled in a ravine on 120 acres of Ozark woodlands, getting to Crystal Bridges is half the fun if you choose to walk or bike nearly four miles of sculpture and walking trails. 21c Museum Hotel offers complimentary bicycle rentals for hotel guests, or visitors can check out a rental cruiser from Phat Tire Bikes.
Taking the elevator down four flights was like entering a space station.
Upon disembarking, we were greeted by the gargantuan spider Maman, by French artist Louise Bourgeois — a fitting gateway for the weblike museum complex designed by architect Moshe Safdie.
Safdie took great consideration to design a community space informed by the geographic, social and cultural elements that define the Natural State. The museum seamlessly melds nature with art and architecture.
Inside Frank Lloyd Wright’s Bachman-Wilson House, opened at Crystal Bridges last year, sight lines in the Cherokee red concrete floor tiles connected with custom sofa cushions, up through bookshelves, finally soaring across ceiling beams and out into the architect’s distinct gridlike composition.
The kitchen counter was made of the same slate used in chemistry lab tables. Its cool, smooth surface disappeared into wood-paneled walls. Though there is no public access to the second-floor living space, we could peek into a guest bedroom, which has been described as being like sleeping in a ship’s cabin.
General admission to the museum is sponsored by Wal-Mart, which allows free admission to the permanent collection of American masterworks spanning from the Colonial era to present day.
Crystal Bridges elicits a sense of inclusivity in all aspects of the museum experience. We explored each gallery, pausing to reflect on works by artists such as Carrie Mae Weems and her indelible 1990 The Kitchen Table Series, or Norman Rockwell’s 1943 oil on canvas, Rosie the Riveter.
Fitting for an election year is the exhibition “Shaking Hands and Kissing Babies,” on view through Jan. 9, 2017. This collection of more than 40 diverse objects examines the history and power of visual advertising in political campaigns of American leaders, from George Washington to Barack Obama.
The view of the water from Eleven Restaurant, complete with snapping turtles and enormous fresh-water fish, was remarkable and undoubtedly more so at twilight.
We wandered through the museum grounds for hours and left with the intention of returning that evening to enjoy outdoor art installations, such as Leo Villareal’s lighted sculpture Buckyball.
In August, the mseum announced the gift of a Steinway Concert Grand piano that belonged to the internationally acclaimed pianist Van Cliburn. The piano was donated to the museum by Thomas Smith, Cliburn’s longtime friend and a resident of Fort Worth.
“We are honored to provide a home for one of the world’s most storied pianos,” says Rod Bigelow, Crystal Bridges executive director.
In collaboration with the Van Cliburn Foundation, Crystal Bridges will host a dedication concert featuring 2001 Cliburn gold medalist Olga Kern to showcase the piano. The performance will take place at 4 p.m. Oct. 9. Tickets, $50, can be reserved online or by calling guest services.
In 2018, Crystal Bridges is expected to complete its transformation of a defunct Kraft cheese plant to open a 63,000-square-foot space dedicated to contemporary art. The project is reminiscent of the beginnings of Dia:Beacon, a renovated Nabisco box factory in upstate New York that reigns as the mecca of minimalist and conceptual art.
More to experience
Springdale, and more specifically cider, beckoned. Black Apple Crossing was the first cidery to open in Arkansas and it’s the only one, so far. Its cider can be found on rotation at the commanding center bar at Pressroom. Bob Dylan lyrics floated out the door to the dusty street as we walked in.
A quick jaunt across the street to a taqueria amplified our flights of cider with spicy, no-frill sopas and quesadillas. To enjoy more time in Bentonville, we could have stopped by beloved food truck Crepes Paulette for a late-afternoon snack, followed by craft beer tastings at Bentonville Brewing Co., a five-minute drive from 21c Museum Hotel.
Driving back from Black Apple Crossing, we passed the city of Rogers and the restaurant Heirloom. There, chef and owner Jason Paul creates seasonal, some say magical, fine dining experiences for a crowd of 20. Dinner is served Friday and Saturday evenings, by reservation only.
Perhaps if we would have taken advantage of miles of carefully maintained hiking or biking trails, we would have been hungry for dinner. This fall, Bentonville plays host to the seventh International Mountain Biking Association World Summit, a testament to the city’s embrace of biking and all things the great outdoors allows.
If we had canoed White River or called on SUP Outfitters to paddleboard on Beaver Lake, we very well could have tucked into tartine at Tusk and Trotter or lamb ragu at Oven and Tap. But we didn’t. Instead, we investigated Walton’s 5&10, where Wal-Mart got its start.
Inside The Wal-Mart Museum is an old-fashioned ice cream parlor where we ordered dessert for dinner. We walked, with Yarnell’s Ice Cream in hand, toward the art trails leading back to Crystal Bridges. We passed throngs of swimsuit-clad kids splashing in the fountains at Lawrence Plaza. Their laughter was contagious. In the winter months, this space is transformed into an ice-skating rink.
It would be getting dark soon and we had one more piece of art to see.
James Turrell’s Skyspace is a specifically proportioned chamber with an aperture in the ceiling open to the sky, although it took the occasional bird flying overhead to convince us. This artist uses the sky as his studio and light as his medium.
We arrived half an hour before sunset, although sunrise also proves to be a stunning show. Shades of robin’s egg blue shifted to salmon and cotton candy pink. As the light turned green, I was reminded of the lime-flavored candy we took as part of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled, in the collection of Crystal Bridges. I closed my eyes to soak in the moment.
Bentonville is meant to be savored. There are enough museums, gardens, boutiques and restaurants to keep you busy for days. I understand why my Papa Ernie traveled to Arkansas as often as he could. His love for the land began a family tradition that my dad carries on.
Bentonville claims you as family. It’s one reunion I would gladly revisit year after year.
If you go
Getting there: The drive from Fort Worth to Bentonville is just shy of 400 miles, about six hours away. Take U.S. 75 N. for the most direct and scenic route. By plane, fly to Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport (XNA) in Fayetteville from DFW Airport (DFW) on major airline carriers including American and Delta.
Where to stay:
▪ 21c Museum Hotel
200 N.E. A St., Bentonville
www.21cmuseumhotels.com/bentonville. Rates from $239.
What to do:
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
600 Museum Way, Bentonville
Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Wednesday-Friday. Closed Tuesdays and on Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day. Crystal Bridges trails and grounds are open from sunrise to sunset daily.
Admission: General admission to Crystal Bridges is sponsored by Wal-Mart. There is no cost to view the permanent collections. There may occasionally be a fee to view special exhibitions ($10 for adults). Eleven Restaurant is inside the museum.
Bentonville Farmer’s Market
100-192 N.W. Second St., Bentonville
Hours: 7:30 a.m.-1 p.m. select Saturdays, April through October
The Peel Mansion Museum & Heritage Gardens
400 S. Walton Blvd., Bentonville
Hours: 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday. There are 45-minute tours every hour on the hour.
Admission: $5 adults, $2 for children ages 6-12, free for children under 6. (Price does not include tax.)
The Wal-Mart Museum
105 N. Main St., Bentonville
Hours: 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, noon-9 p.m. Sunday
Where to eat:
▪ The Hive
200 N.E. A St. inside 21c Museum Hotel, Bentonville
▪ Foxhole Public House
401 S.W. A St., Suite 120, Bentonville
100 N.W. Second St., Suite 100, Bentonville
▪ Yeyo’s Mexican Grill
122 W. Central Ave., Bentonville
▪ ONYX Coffee Lab
100 Second St., Suite 106, Bentonville
▪ The Spark Café Soda Fountain
105 N. Main St., Bentonville