Pictured above: Bright colors meet bold favors at The Grumpy Rabbit. Photos By Jamie Lee

 

Welcome to Lonoke, population around 4,100. It is a polite and welcoming area where quaint sidewalks and mom-and-pop businesses line Main Street, friendly locals give you a wave, and everyone knows their neighbors.

 

But do not let the small-town setting fool you; there is a restaurant here serving up something special. The Grumpy Rabbit, housed in a downtown space, opened its doors in January 2021 and has been offering a first-class dining experience that has created a lot of buzz in the area food scene ever since.

The restaurant brought new life to Lonoke’s downtown.

Lonoke native Gina Wiertelak, owner and operator, brought the restaurant to its antique home, a building dating back to 1905, with no idea what she was getting into.

 

“It’s been an adventure. I’ve learned so much,” she said. “The renovation took 13 months. We hauled seven and a half tons of waste to the dump. Lonoke was my go-to first for anything we needed. Our flooring guy is from here. The architect and designer are also from Lonoke. We had so many people helping us out. It really was a community project.”

grumpy rabbit

The idea for Grumpy Rabbit was born of a desire to create a space for locals and visitors to share a meal and make connections. Gina and her husband, Jim, envisioned the restaurant as an anchor for revitalization that would draw more foot traffic to historic downtown Lonoke. Gina said she wanted to do something that would give back to her community and attract new investment and jobs.

 

“I grew up six miles south of Lonoke at the end of a dirt road,” Gina said. “We used to come to town on Saturdays when I was younger and shop and see everyone. Then I noticed, all through the years when I would come back home, I would see another store boarded up. It made me sad.

The Grumpy Rabbit features multiple spaces to suit any mood.

“I always said, ‘If I can ever come back home, I want to do something to try to help revitalize Lonoke.’”

 

It took a while – 41 years to be exact, during which time she lived in Little Rock and Memphis – but Wiertelak finally got a chance to make good on her long-held promise when she moved back to town to be closer to her father.

“I remember telling the architect and the contractor when we were initially meeting, ‘It’s not that I want to make money with this. I would like to recoup our investment someday and just break even. I just want the jobs and the people to come to Lonoke,’” she said. “It just feels good.”

 

Wiertelak did not come from a restaurant background and spent her career in the corporate world. She only had a desire to open something that would bring value to her community. What she got was a business that not only reflects the love she has for her hometown, but the family bonds that run deep there. Laura Park is the marketing director for The Grumpy Rabbit and Gina’s first cousin.

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The restaurant’s entrees, desserts and appetizers have all drawn rave reviews.

“We have always been best friends and more like sisters than cousins,” Park said. “I coached high school volleyball and softball for 36 years in Lonoke and retired last August. Gina’s main goal was to help the community with having a place for people to come and work. She had a survey done with a company and asked what local people would want, and many said they wanted a nicer place to eat.”

 

Enter Alain Piraux, restaurant consultant, a professional with a resume that stretches from Little Rock to Tokyo and Africa. As former executive chef, food and beverage director, and hotel manager for Ritz-Carlton Hotels who apprenticed at a two-star Michelin restaurant in Paris, Piraux is, at first blush, as out of place in Lonoke as the dream of Grumpy Rabbit once seemed.

“I met Gina through her chef,” he said. “At the time, he was a chef at the Capital Hotel. He called me with concerns about them opening on time and asked me to come and look at the restaurant. He wanted to show me where he would be working. When I came, Gina offered me a job.”

 

Piraux was only supposed to be with the restaurant for three months but remains there today, as does the Grumpy Rabbit itself, more successful and popular than ever.

“We have about 60 percent locals and 40 percent out-of-towners, some from Cabot and the Little Rock area,” he said. “We want to make everyone feel comfortable when they open the door. We are not too fancy; we aren’t too casual.”

 

“It’s a great place if you want someplace to come and have a drink, but then you can also bring your whole family and sit down for a nice supper,” Park said. “We have couples that come dressed up for prom, all types of family events, engagements — pretty much anything. Everyone is welcome.”

 

 

The Grumpy Rabbit is all about local. Wiertelak sources as much locally as she can, from ingredients to furnishings. She has hired local craftsmen and artists for the decor and is a familiar face at area farmers markets. Even the name of the place has local connections.

 

“Gina played basketball in junior high and high school in Lonoke and was a key member of the state championship basketball team in 1977. That is the only state championship in basketball the girls have ever won,” Park said. “The mascot is the Jackrabbits. She has always supported them, even when she was living away. The rabbit part of the name comes from that. Grumpy comes from her husband because that is his grandpa name.”

 

Walking into the restaurant, patrons are immediately greeted with bright and vibrant colors. The decor is fun and whimsical. Mixed in are refurbished items, many from the original building. There are two dining rooms, upstairs and downstairs. From the second-story dining room, diners can see the original Lonoke train depot. Outside features a two-story patio surrounded by colorful murals and featuring TVs that make it a great place to watch a game.

The Grumpy Rabbit menu leans into American dishes with a local twist expressed in frequently changing lunch and dinner specials and unique takes on classic favorites. Top sellers are the Grumpy Burger and the blackened redfish, the latter being served with a crawfish and Creole tomato cream sauce spooned over cheddar house grits. The fish is seasoned to perfection — not overly spicy for those who do not care for spice, but just enough to have a Cajun flavor that is about as authentic as it gets. The grits are creamy, and the cream sauce is decadent with crawfish mixed in.

 

The Grumpy Burger is a classic burger with a homemade seasoned patty topped with melted American cheese and smoky, local bacon. The brioche bun is fresh and hearty enough to support the burger without falling apart, while the garlic aioli is the ideal condiment. It is served with fresh, hand-cut fries.

 

And as if food this good in a place this remote is not enough to make foodies’ heads spin, the unquestioned specialty of the house – tater tots – defines culinary quirkiness. 

 

“The No. 1 thing on the menu that Gina will never change is the tater tots. That was something her mother made, and [Gina’s] two dogs are even named Tater and Tot,” Park said.

 

The tots are an appetizer – fried, smashed and served with a choice of ketchup, cheese sauce, garlic aioli, spicy ketchup, ranch or fry sauce. A standard order comes with three sauces, but if diners cannot decide, they can upsell and get all six. The tots come out crispy and hot. They are meant to be shared — if patrons are in a generous mood. 

 

Desserts are not forgotten on the menu, and the award-winning carrot cake can make fans of those who do not like carrot cake. This homemade gem is not too spicy, not too sweet and served with a delicious cream cheese frosting topped with a caramel drizzle and crowned with local pecans. It deserves all the praise.

 

Also be on the lookout for Emma’s Old-Fashioned strawberry shortcake, a dessert special the day AY visited. Made with sweet, whipped cream, local strawberries and a homemade biscuit, it is sure to join the carrot cake as a favorite of customers.

Hospitality and customer service accompany the great food. Piraux says Wiertelak is a natural at anticipating her customers’ needs, as seen through thoughtful touches such as installing a bike rack out front and providing a basket of toys to help soothe fussy toddlers.

 

“Gina is great at that. She’s always ahead of things that our guests may need,” he said. “She wants everyone to leave happy.”

 

“Gina wants to talk to every table,” Park said. “We get a lot of out-of-towners that come in. She wants to meet them and hear their stories. She is appreciative of every person that walks through our doors, whether it’s the local who comes in for lunch every day or the person just passing through. She wants to serve others and has always been that type of person.”

 

The Grumpy Rabbit is a testament to a true community spirit. By using local ingredients and artisans, Wiertelak has created an authentic hometown establishment for the community to be proud of and have a first-class dining experience. Their slogan is ‘Come grumpy. Leave happy,’ and anyone who eats here should leave with a smile on their face and a plan to return. It is worth the drive from anywhere. 

 

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