Date: December 1, 2022 | Story: Stephanie Maxwell Newtone | Photography: Bailey Dougan |
A bustling historic district with local boutiques, restaurants, and entertainment keeps people coming back to this small-town gem
Benton feels like the heart of Saline County, and not simply because it’s the county seat. The city’s walkable downtown and charming storefronts, many of which have been in place for close to a century, bring character and vitality to this small town situated along Interstate 30.
The area’s natural production of bauxite, a source of aluminum, was to thank for Saline County’s economic boom in the first half of the 20th century. In 2008, Benton’s commercial downtown was given the designation of a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places. But while there are plenty of reasons to be intrigued by the area’s past, its residents are working hard to think toward the future, too.
Heather Baber-Roe, a relative newcomer to Benton, knows firsthand that a melding of new and old are important to the city’s success. In 2020, she and her husband, Craig Roe, opened the second location of their Tex–Mex restaurant, Baja Grill, in Benton. Though the concept was originally a food truck located in the vicinity, Heather and Craig sold the truck in 2014 to open a brick-and-mortar closer to home in Little Rock. “We weren’t going to even think about opening a second location until our kids went to college, but the mayor approached us and said, We want to bring you guys back to Benton,” Heather says. After a meeting with their now-landlords, they couldn’t see a reason not to jump at the chance. “Our landlords wanted to buy some commercial property and totally redo it, but they wanted a local restaurant in there that would be a good addition to downtown,” Heather says. After several busy months commuting between Little Rock and Benton, the couple made the leap and moved 30 minutes southwest. “Craig had been wanting to move to Benton for a couple of years, even before having a restaurant here, but I was more hesitant,” Heather admits. “But there’s such a large group of people who appreciate the eclectic nature of local businesses and encourage that here, which is important to me.”
Since the move, Heather and Craig’s opportunities and love for the city have both multiplied. They’re now owners of three additional concepts in the same city block as Baja Grill: casual dining spot Valhalla, Valkyrie Axe Throwing, and Rober, a more intimate restaurant set to open by the end of the year. Next door to Rober, Heather and Craig have a gourmet market in the works called South Street Provisions, which they hope to open by early 2023. “We really like our neighborhood and neighbors, both at home and at work,” Heather says, naming Italy in Town and Burger Shack as two businesses she admires as institutions of downtown Benton. “It’s a tight group, and it feels like we’re a part of something special. There are people here who took a chance on it before we did, and that’s what’s made it possible.” Read on for some of our favorite ways to discover Benton.
With everything from pillows and throw blankets to books, jewelry, and bath goods, 501 Faire (shop501faire.com) is a one-stop shop for gifts and home décor. If you can’t make it to their Market Street storefront, you can shop online—and they even offer free delivery to Benton, Bryant, and Conway. Stated Apparel (stated.me) is home to beloved outdoor brands like Nativ, Kavu, and Southern Marsh as well as the store’s own line of screen-printed tees featuring designs for Arkansas and surrounding states. For furnishings, White Furniture (whitefurniturecompany.com) has been a staple of Benton’s downtown since 1966. Step inside the family-owned business to shop sofas, chairs, lighting, and rugs.
Baja Grill (eatbajagrill.com) has become a favorite for its unique menu, which presents every entree as a tasty combination of ingredients each available in taco, burrito, quesadilla, nacho, or “naked bowl” form. After “Chico” Santos, the founder of Italy in Town (501.794.6499) passed away last year, new owners picked up the helm to honor the restaurateur and keep his well-loved Italian restaurant going. The current menu stays true to Chico’s originals while adding weekly specials to the lineup.
Head to the Bauxite Historical Association Museum (501.557.9858) in nearby Bauxite to explore the area’s past through collections of historic artifacts, antique mining equipment, geological specimens, and other memorabilia from the Aluminum Company of America. While parts of the Royal Theatre (theroyaltheatre.org) date back to the 1920s, the Art Deco-style marquee and sign are part of a post-war redesign. The Royal Players’ current season includes Elf the Musical from December 2-12.