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WATCH | Chef Garland aims to open speakeasy on Central Avenue

by James Leigh | February 24, 2023 at 4:05 a.m.
Joshua Garland, owner of Best Cafe and DONS Southern Social, and Fatima Alvirde, the director of operations for both restaurants, are shown outside Best Cafe. - Photo by Donald Cross of The Sentinel-Record

Joshua Garland has made a name for himself with Best Cafe and Bar on Ouachita Avenue, but he has plans to expand into dinner service soon with a new speakeasy-styled restaurant at the intersection of Central Avenue and Market Street.

DONS Southern Social, which will be located at 901 Central Ave., takes its name from "Doing Overtime, No Sleeping," which Garland said explains what life as a chef is like. The new restaurant is a collaboration between Garland and some others in the culinary industry.

"It was always a dream of mine to open a dinner restaurant, and DONS represents a group of talented chefs and people in the culinary industry that got together after work and brainstormed ideas," he said. "It was just always a dream of mine to bring that forth, and this is my opportunity."

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Garland said the group of chefs helping to create the restaurant come from all over the country.

"One of the guys is from (Washington) D.C.," he said. "One of the guys is from Denver, Colorado. They're just friends that I've met along the way that are great culinarians, and they decided to trust me and come help me do my dream.

"I think that's what makes us unique as a group is that we all have different things that we bring to the table. No one is above anyone, and we all listen to each other and work together towards the same goal."

The building that will host the new restaurant required a great deal of remodeling because it was formerly the home of Douglas A. Arnold and Associates, an architectural firm.

"It was pretty much gutted to the bare bones," Garland said, estimating the building at 4,200 square feet between the first floor and the basement. "We're doing the mechanical, the electrical, the plumbing, the paint, the flooring, the ceiling. We're doing everything from scratch."

One of the main things being done to remodel the location is installing windows in the north side of the building along Market Street. In order to do that, workers had to cut into the "Freedom Mural" painted on the wall by Little Rock artist Perrion Hurd, which was completed in November 2021.

"Our intention was never to take down the mural," Fatima Alvirde, the director of operations for both Best Cafe and DONS Southern Social, said.

"What our vision was for the interior of the building, the exterior did have to change.

"We will be introducing large windows to open up the space inside to again bring in that vision of the environment we want to portray within the dining room," she said.

In addition to the main dining area, a bar and private dining room on the main floor, Alvirde said there will be a wine-tasting area in the basement where "we are actually constructing a wine display."

"We'll be featuring some nice red wines, a nice cooler for white wines, and guests will be able to come down and look at our wine selection," she said.

The idea behind the restaurant is to keep the speakeasy idea with hidden entrances and passwords, she said.

"Part of DONS is we want to introduce a speakeasy concept to it," she said. "So all of our main entrances will be hidden entrances -- one of them being a phone booth and one that's located in our foyer. I'll keep that one a little bit secret for now, since it's still a little bit of a secret entrance, but we wanted to keep that speakeasy feel to it."

Garland, a St. Louis native who moved to Arkansas when he was in elementary school, said the foyer of the restaurant will be set up like a small art gallery.

"When you walk in, you will give the hostess your code, and then she will open the secret door for you to actually get you into the restaurant. And then the phone booth, you will type in a number, and then the door will open for you -- your own code that we will send to you," he said.

While the hope is for most diners to make reservations, walk-in customers will also be welcomed.

"Our main goal, and it ties into our vision, is we want everybody to feel welcome," Alvirde said. "I am never gonna turn anybody away. Even here at the cafe if it's busy, I'll try to find a spot. Our goal is always to make everyone feel welcome, to come and enjoy our food and service, and just enjoy."

The menu for the new restaurant will feature familiar Southern-style food that has been elevated.

"I want to use traditional dishes that people are used to in the South, but I want to incorporate different flavors that I've pretty much learned over the years traveling," Garland said.

"I just kind of wanted to bring it all together almost like a melting pot -- Southern being the number one impact and influence on my cuisine -- but I also want to bring in others that I've learned along the way."

As a Black man who owns a business in a world where minority business owners are still not as prevalent, Garland hopes this venture will help other people in minority groups to consider entrepreneurship.

"Being one of the only Black owners I believe in town, I have received nothing but love and respect from other owners," he said. "Being an African American and having my own business in this town -- I know there's not many -- and I think that along the way, I think this will enlighten a lot of younger African Americans to pursue a career in entrepreneurship and whatever it is they may want to do, and that there are people along the way that will help."

A chef by trade, Garland said stepping back to lead as an owner brings its own challenges.

"It's difficult because being a chef, by nature, I always want to be in the kitchen," he said. "I always want to make sure to touch every little dish and make sure it's perfect, but also being an owner, you have to have the oversight to look over everything and to make sure you're thinking about all the things that are happening.

"None of that would be possible if it wasn't for my director of operations. People always give me all this credit, but I'm nothing without my team. They're literally the reason why I am successful."

Garland and Alvirde met in Florida while pursuing their own culinary careers before teaming up years later.

"When I started out my restaurant career, I was working at a country club down in Florida, and that's where I met Chef Joshua," she said.

"We worked really well together, realized that we shared the same passion in terms of what we wanted to create, what we wanted to have our guests experience, became friends outside of work. We went our own separate ways for a couple of years, but still kept in contact.

"And then once he got the opportunity to come here and open up Best Cafe, he gave me a call. He was like, 'Hey, do you wanna move to Arkansas?' and here I am two years later. It's been great to be able to build this with someone who also shares the same passion, where I know if I'm going to try to find a seat for someone, I know there's going to be a dish there that that'll be made for them."

Garland said he hopes to have a soft opening in early April with a full opening of the restaurant in May.

  photo  A mural on the Market Street side of 901 Central Ave., which is being turned into DONS Southern Social, is being removed to install additional windows for the restaurant. - Photo by Donald Cross of The Sentinel-Record
  photo  The interior of DONS Southern Social, at 901 Central Ave., is being remodeled from a former office space into a new restaurant. - Photo by Donald Cross of The Sentinel-Record
  photo  Cuts in the north wall of 901 Central Ave., which is being remodeled into DONS Southern Social, shows where windows will be placed. The wall currently has a mural featuring Harriet Tubman. - Photo by Donald Cross of The Sentinel-Record

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