- Associated Press - Saturday, May 27, 2017

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) - After 43 years, a landmark Fayetteville restaurant will close at the end of May.

Restaurant on the Corner was a staple in Fayetteville before gentrification began to alter the ambiance and raise the rents along the bar-lined stretch that connects the University of Arkansas and downtown.

With new landlords planning extensive renovations in 1998, owners T.L. Nelms and Anita Leflett decided to move the restaurant that year to the edge of town.

“The leases were going to be so cost-prohibitive, and we were going to have to wait for two years,” Nelms said, referring to the time it was going to take to renovate the Dickson Street property.

“We moved under duress,” Leflett said.

Nelms and Leflett, who were married for a decade, opened Restaurant on the Corner in 1974 and The Grill in 1979 in buildings they leased, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (https://bit.ly/2qaB8qi ) reported.

Separated by a parking lot, the two restaurants were hangouts for wide variety of customers, from hippies to future presidents.

Greg Simon, director of the Biden Cancer Initiative in Washington, D.C., remembers the regulars at the restaurant, where he was a cook in 1974 and 1975.

“That was like the gathering place,” said Simon. “Professor (Bill) Clinton and Hillary used to come in on Fridays and sit around and have a French dip and shoot the s(asterisk)(asterisk)(asterisk). He wasn’t famous back then. He was just known for taking up the corner booth for a long time.”

“He was a good tipper,” Leflett said.

“Hillary and I were young law professors when Restaurant on the Corner opened,” former President Bill Clinton said. “We loved going there. The food was good, the feel was better — like a family full of talk, laughter and argument, back when argument was still good-natured. We were there for the first three years of ROTC before moving to Little Rock, but still came back from time to time to get the food and the feel.”

Nelms and Leflett didn’t have a name for their new restaurant. On paperwork for a city permit, next to “name” Leflett wrote “restaurant” and under “address” she wrote “on the corner Dickson and Rollston.” The permit came back with the name of the business as Restaurant on the Corner and the address “Dickson and Rollston.” Leflett said the restaurant quickly got the nickname ROTC because it was shorter.

On opening day, the crowd was so big that Nelms recruited friends who had stopped in to eat to step into the kitchen and help cook, Leflett said.

Steve Caraway, a former manager of ROTC, said it was a place where the Dickson Street crowd could spend time without spending a lot of money.

“We would make jokes that we could make more money renting booths and giving away free food,” Caraway said. “People would come in and order French fries and be there for three or four hours.”

When the two businesses moved, they were combined into the same building on Arkansas 112, with ROTC serving as the restaurant and The Grill as the bar. Nelms has since bought out Leflett’s interest in the business, but she still owns half of the building on Arkansas 112.

Many customers followed the migration, but the restaurants were no longer gathering spots on Dickson Street.

Other locally owned businesses have also left Dickson Street. Several new bars and restaurants have filled the void, including chains like Chipotle, Taco Bell and Waffle House.

“There are plenty of ways to improve a town’s main street besides letting it become infested by chain operations,” said James Howard Kunstler, author of The Geography of Nowhere and a critic of suburban sprawl.

Kunstler said he’s been to Fayetteville and admired the university campus and its Beaux Arts buildings, but he thought the city had too much “generic strip commerce.”

Most of the chains in the entertainment district have gone into existing buildings, with Chipotle occupying the Dickson Street frontage of the Fayetteville train depot.

“By and large, they haven’t changed the look of the street a whole lot,” said Mervin Jebaraj, interim director of the UA’s Center for Business and Economic Research.

Jebaraj said the first phase of gentrification is popularity and the next phase is the influx of chains.

“I think (the chain influx) is a sign of mature gentrification,” he said. “The first phase of gentrification is the area becoming popular because of the unique types of businesses in that area.”

But those businesses are sometimes pushed out by rising rents. In that case, they often move to side streets, expanding the footprint of the entertainment district and thriving there, Jebaraj said.

“I think this is what you see happening on gentrified streets all over the country,” he said.

Joe Fennel opened Jose’s Mexican Restaurant in 1980 in a former lumber mill building on Dickson Street. He closed the restaurant at the end of 2015. The building now houses a JJ’s Grill, which is a locally owned chain.

“Jose’s on Dickson ran its course,” said Fennel. “JJ’s came in and did the things you have to do to be relevant on Dickson Street now.”

Among the things you have to do, Fennel said, is adapt to what the customers want. Change is essential, he said. Young customers aren’t so interested in live music, he said. Jose’s often had a band playing on its patio.

Fennel still runs Bordino’s, his upscale restaurant on Dickson Street.

He said Dickson Street began to change for the better after the Walton Arts Center was completed in 1992.

“I promise you Dickson Street is a whole lot better place now than it was anytime in the 1980s,” Fennel said.

When asked how it’s better, Fennel said, “They’re not killing people down here now. It happened three times in the 1980s.”

A spokesman for the Fayetteville Police Department said he doesn’t have an estimate on the number of homicides in the city in the 1980s.

Fennel said many UA students avoided Dickson Street in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s.

“It was so rough down here the college kids were bypassing Dickson Street and going to North College,” Fennel said.

But that is no longer the case, Fennel said.

Jebaraj said it’s crowded on weekend nights.

“I am not worried about Dickson Street,” he said. “I frequent the street. I still enjoy it. … I don’t mind the vibrancy.”

Nelms grew up on a farm near Black Oak in east Arkansas and went to school in West Memphis. He moved to Fayetteville to attend the university.

In 2009, Nelms married Mary Sanchez of Springdale.

Later that year, a fire almost destroyed the restaurant. Forty volunteers — many of whom were employees or former employees — showed up to help restore the building. Don Tyson and an executive from Tyson Foods Inc. stopped by after the fire, and they each gave Nelms $1,000 to help with the effort. Nelms said Tyson, who died in 2011, liked to sit in the bar and listen to the jukebox.

Nelms said he won’t miss the restaurant, and he won’t retire soon. He has grass to mow and rental properties to maintain, he said.

Leflett said she’ll miss the food, but she doesn’t miss being in the restaurant business.

The restaurant will remain open until May 31.

The bar side of the building, known as The Grill, will remain open until the end of June for happy hour only..

The building is under contract to be sold to Tanner Bassett, who is planning a music venue for the location.

Bassett, who owns Grassroots Landscaping of Fayetteville, said he also envisions a bar and perhaps a restaurant serving bar food, but it won’t be called Restaurant on the Corner. He hopes to open the venue by September.

“I don’t know exactly what that product will be at this point,” Bassett said. “We want to preserve the character of place. We think it’s got a lot of history. We love Fayetteville, and we want to keep Fayetteville funky.”

“For 43 years the restaurant was a gift to Fayetteville, and its people young and old,” said former President Clinton. “It leaves a glow. We hope the owners enjoy their well-deserved retirement.”

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Information from: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, https://www.arkansasonline.com

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