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It’s been 18 months since El Dorado’s Festival and Events finished Phase One of their plan to make the city a destination for visitors and an incentive for skilled workers to move there. Let’s see how things are going.

But first, let’s take a closer look at the town. El Dorado’s official population is under 20,000, but it expands to an estimated 30,000 during the work-week with workers who don’t live in the city limits, but pour in every morning from all four directions, and with Murphy Oil, Murphy USA, Potlatch-Deltic, Delek Refinery, Systems Contracting, a high school, where graduating seniors have their college tuition paid, a new conference center, a new historical museum, the top downtown in the mid-south, and the best fitness center in the state, we aren’t exactly on our way, to you know where, in a handbasket. Now, let’s take a close look at Phase One.

Phase One was new construction to provide visitors, residents, and potential residents some of the key quality-of-life features missing in El Dorado, but usually found in larger cities. These items are first class entertainment, a children’s park, and a quality restaurant. The starting point was the 1920s Griffin Auto Building a block south of the Square.

Three entertainment venues were constructed in and around the Griffin Building. The largest, the multi-use amphitheater, will hold 8000 concert goers, and recently, Hank Williams Jr. filled it up, and with a free summer movie series on tap, and a farmers’ market lining the side canopy, it immediately moved the city up to a tier one music-talent destination. From the fall of 2017 the huge stage with top quality sound and lighting has been a mid-south entertainment stop. A week ago the Symetra Golf Tournament players, sponsors, and friends flooded the amphitheater on a perfect spring night.

The amphitheater sits between two of the other entertainment venues, and its proximity enhances both of them. The Children’s PlayScape is the largest children’s play area in the state. It is an innovative assembly of not only the standard playground equipment, but with a large water feature crowned by a giant, red Razorback, and with other items, which stretch the imagination of children, such as musical chimes they can play or zip lines to ride, PlayScape quickly became a must-go-to destination for area kids and visitors.

The Griffin Auto Building, with its arched open space interior, has been transformed into a 2200 seat auditorium featuring a Broadway quality stage with the best sound and lighting available. It is an entertainment venue that has to be experienced to believe. From ZZ Top to the Temptations, the First Financial Hall has packed them in, and during the annual MusicFest, live entertainment spills over to venues all over the adjacent downtown. Coming events such as the Southern Food and Wine Festival and the MAD BATTLE –to crown best regional band, will make the entertainment feature that MAD (Murphy Art District) has created a runaway hit, and it promises to get better and better as Broadway touring companies arrive.

But as great as these features are, the current crown jewel is the Griffin Restaurant-Cabaret. The old Griffin Building is so large that even with a 2200 seat auditorium there was plenty of room across the front of the building to add a restaurant that will accommodate 200, a cabaret stage, a full bar, and a raised seating lower balcony. The Cabaret features “Thursday Night Live” entertainment that never has a cover charge, and with perfect sound and lighting, the Cabaret as become so popular that live music on the Cabaret stage has been added for Friday and Saturday nights.

Of course the Griffin Restaurant was included in the overall destination concept, because top quality restaurants are on almost everyone’s list to make a town a destination. Over the years I have watched restaurants come and go in our town, and from my viewpoint, the creation of a top quality restaurant, “Worth a Journey” is a difficult undertaking, and putting in a restaurant of that magnitude is never an ‘open the doors and it’s a done job’. It is a slow, fine-tuning operation that requires patience, training, and a quality kitchen under the direction of a creative chef.

Over the past 18 months the Griffin has turned out some memorable meals, but there have also been some problems and not every presentation has been of the quality that is needed. However, the Festival’s and Events Team didn’t settle for a lesser restaurant, but steadily worked to improve service and food, and I am happy to say the level of today’s service and food has steadily moved up to where I can confidently say, “The Griffin is Worth a Journey”.

Now let’s take a close look at the menu, service, and food. Every restaurant worth its salt must have someone in charge who not only is a hands-on chef, but one who can impart his skills to others in the kitchen to be sure the preparation of every dish is of the same excellent quality. The recent addition of Executive Chef Austin Johnson has added that quality to the Griffin. Chef Johnson comes with experience from Paris where he was the Executive Chef of Frenchie. His experience also includes work in the famed Eleven Madison Park Restaurant in New York City as well as numerous other work in quality restaurants.

The menu of the Griffin is varied and covers many of the standards such as an 8 ounce filet, which I had. It was a tender, obviously a top quality piece of meat, grilled to perfection. They also offer a 20 ounce New York Strip for those who want a larger steak. Also included on the dinner entrees are seared scallops, which Vertis had. She gave them a two thumbs up, and for her, a serious scallop eater, to rave about them meant they were excellent.

One of the better salads on the dinner menu is a Wedge Salad (that can be split), which can be really dull if the dressing is just ordinary, but the Griffin’s bleu cheese, bacon chips, and tomatoes with croutons really sets it off.

A good wine list is a must, and the Griffin has probably the best wine list in the state featuring the Presqu’ile Winery, which of course, has an El Dorado connection. Fine wines such as a Chateau Rayas Chatneauneuf-Du-Pape for $500 or a Presqu’ile Pinot Noir that will rival the Willamette Valley of Oregon’s Pinot Noirs are available.

For a real bargain try the Sunday brunch-lunch where for $15, you can select three items from a list of 19, and that list has nearly everything from a skillet of homemade cinnamon rolls to Eggs Benedict. You can even pick a Chicken Fried Steak as one of your selections.

I haven’t had their special hamburger, but a good friend said, “Best hamburger in El Dorado.”

That’s my overview of MAD Phase One, and if Phase Two, which includes an art museum, a boutique hotel, and the crown jewel of Arkansas, the Rialto Theater, measures up to Phase One, Hot Springs residents are going to be buying condos in El Dorado.

Richard Mason is a registered professional geologist, downtown developer, former chairman of the Department of Environmental Quality Board of Commissioners, past president of the Arkansas Wildlife Federation, and syndicated columnist. Email richard@ gibraltarenergy.com.

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