Photos by Brent Walker
Leading a tour through the gorgeous Cypress Social, restaurateur Jim Keet looks at the understated elegance of his latest creation as if seeing it for the first time. He smiles.
“My sons hate it when I say the word, ‘cool,’” he said. “Because when I say ‘cool,’ it usually means spending anywhere from $1,000 to $1 million.”
It doesn’t take long to see that Keet made good use of his code word in the assemblage of Cypress Social, built out of the former Cock of the Walk restaurant tucked into the woods off Maumelle Boulevard. As in, “It’d be so cool to have a 1-million-gallon lake with a towering water spray fountain out back.” Or, “Wouldn’t it be cool to have a bar with unobstructed view out a wall of windows.” Or, “A three-tiered wrap-around deck overlooking a waterfall would just be so…cool.”
“What we ultimately wanted was to create the best destination restaurant in the state of Arkansas,” said Keet, a 45-year veteran of the restaurant game. “We wanted to make sure that every detail was unique and that it would harken back to the past a bit. It was to create a brand new, iconic restaurant for the state.”
Keet puts the number of decisions he’s weighed in creating the 280-seat Cypress Social well into the thousands, from landscaping to silverware to naming cocktails. The catfish alone took 13 iterations to get just right. But the most important decision was a change in direction that created the restaurant in the first place.
“The initial plan was to move our construction company into what used to be the bar and then, create an off-premises catering kitchen in the back and have it as an event center,” he said.
“When we got in for the project, we had such an outpouring of people, not just from Maumelle, but North Little Rock, Conway, Little Rock and Central Arkansas saying, ‘You guys do such an outstanding job at Petit & Keet and Taziki’s and the other things that you’ve done. Please put in another restaurant.’”
Inspired by the comments, Keet reimagined the space as an approachable enclave for sophisticated Southern-inspired dishes in a warm, inviting atmosphere. It would take 18 months to bring that vision to life, but the results are stunning, both in the casual elegance of the finished product and in the retelling of the myriad construction challenges the project faced.
“We had a beautiful setting to begin with; we started tearing the building apart, and what we discovered was that the building was in such bad shape,” said Keet, as casually as if talking about a simple resurfacing of the parking lot. “We had to literally rebuild it from the roof to the ground.”
Enter Greg O’Gary of Keet O’Gary Construction, a craftsman who is to construction projects what Keet is to restaurants. O’Gary has seen a little bit of everything in his career, and even he was impressed by the string of challenges the project presented.
“I’ve done a lot of restoration projects, some real doozies, but this one here, this was difficult,” he said. “The building didn’t even have footings under it. The more we tore it apart, the worse it got. It was like the onion we were peeling.
“If you can imagine, we reconstructed this building virtually from the inside out. We started with tearing all the floors out, we poured all new footings, jacked it up, poured all new floor joists and then tore the old ones out. We jacked the roof up, tore all the inside walls out and then rebuilt all of them.”
Beyond the base structure, O’Gary also had to engineer solutions to deliver the sightlines and overall aesthetic Keet had envisioned. This meant going to great lengths to provide structural support that went well past the ordinary, resulting in walls of glass and back-bar elements that seem to float in mid-air. All done with larger-than-life beams and trusses, mandatory to hold the building together yet while remaining invisible.
“You don’t see it from the outside, it’s all hidden up in the ceiling and the walls,” O’Gary said. “Behind the bar there’s a great big open area, 34 foot of free-span nothing. There’s 6-foot by 40-foot trusses that are engineered and tucked up inside of the gable supporting all of that. Those things were challenging, they really were. It really turned out beautiful.”
O’Gary shares Keet’s obsession with detail, and nowhere is that more apparent than with the built-in-place bar. Not satisfied for a simple foot rail of pipe or brass, he envisioned a one-of-a-kind rail that looks impossible because, frankly, conventional fabrication wisdom said it was impossible.
“I like unique things, and this place was so unique. So, let’s do something cool,” he said. “I got with our superintendent, Jose Ramriez, who is just a wonderful fabricator. And he and I sketched out a braid that we thought we could do with rebar. And then we did some jigs in the shop; it took three tries before we said this is what we wanted to do. Once we knew what we wanted to do, we couldn’t do it because No. 5 rebar, three of them twisted together perfectly? Very hard to do.
“So, we built this machine, basically a jig with a wheel on the end of it, and we used our fork truck with a cable to pull it. So as the fork truck was backing up, it was twisting the cable in the jig. And they’re beautiful; I’m so proud of them.”
Having opened 155 restaurants in his career, it takes a lot to impress Keet at the level Cypress Social does. All projects have their own challenges and all bring their own satisfaction, he says over cocktails and dinner. But maybe it’s the fact that this one got done during a pandemic, or maybe it’s how Cypress Social helped him keep almost all of his employees on the payroll.
Maybe it’s the high level of input from family and people he respects that sets it apart. Or maybe, it’s just having captured lightning in a bottle that, even as he moves onto his next project, makes the new place feel so much like home.
“The ultimate goal is, no matter where you live in the state of Arkansas or even in this region, if you come to Little Rock, you’re going to want to go to two places if you’re going to stay for a few days,” he said. “You’re going to want to go to Petit & Keet for an elevated, fun evening with a great bar and patio. And, if you want to go to a unique destination restaurant that’s one of a kind, you’re going to want to come to this restaurant.
“We wanted to make it something really that special. Not fancy. Not ostentatious, but very approachable and yet,” he smiles broadly, “really cool.”