words: Marla Cantrel
images: Marla Cantrell and courtesy Larry B's Rhythm Room featuring Hazel's Gourmet Chicken and Waffles
JT made it happen. Hazel walked into her home the evening of her birthday to find a trove of family and friends waiting, and a menu she’s still talking about. JT had prepared a feast that included Tenderloin Caesar Salad, scallops, lobster tails, Cajun Salmon. For dessert, there was a strawberry cake with chocolate ganache.
After the party, Larry, Hazel, and JT couldn’t quit thinking about how much fun they’d had. Hazel is a natural people person with years of management experience. Larry a dyed-in-the-wool entertainer. JT a food wizard. What would happen if the three of them found a way to cash in on their talents?
They’d toyed with the idea of working together before, but the dinner party showed them what was possible. They started talking, crunching numbers, scouting the area for a vacant restaurant with enough space for a stage and dance floor. Larry wasn’t about to give up music.
When Larry found this building in late 2017, the former Oliver’s Kitchen at 719 Main Street in Van Buren, he felt his heart jump. This was a big restaurant with seating for 130. He called JT and told him he’d found a place; he just wouldn’t tell him where it was. “I drove around with my son all weekend looking at buildings, trying to figure out where it was,” JT says.
Larry laughs. “Had to keep a little suspense going.”
When Larry finally revealed the location, JT could see himself there. And so could Hazel. She started gathering decorating ideas for the space. She dug out her waffle recipe (for the restaurant’s chicken and waffles) that have become the mainstay of this new eatery. She talked to her ninety-three-year-old mother who’s also named Hazel to see if she’d be willing to make pies for the restaurant. Her mama said yes.
What followed was a quest to find the right name. They settled on Larry B’s Rhythm Room featuring Hazel’s Gourmet Chicken and Waffles, a mouthful for sure, but it said everything they wanted to say about this new venue. They would be open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday. There would be live music, often with Larry headlining. And there would be southern soul food done with flavor and style.
Days and nights of work commenced. The new year came and with it a goal to be opened before April of this year. They made it, holding their grand opening on March 30. The first two days they say they served more than 300 people.
The three are sitting in the dining room of Larry B’s as they share their story. It is a Thursday afternoon, one of those misleading days in late spring when the weather is so mild you believe it might stay this way. A trolley rolls by, filled with tourists scoping out this charming downtown with its mom and pop shops, with the historic Drennen-Scott House just blocks away. A few yards from here, a restored A&M train collects passengers at the old depot, taking them through some of the area’s prettiest country.
Hazel loves the feeling of this place. For years she lived in the Dallas area, working in management. Five years ago, she moved to Fort Smith to marry Larry, and then to Van Buren.
Larry is originally from Springfield, Missouri. At three he played his first set of drums. He remembers learning to play “My Girl” on a guitar he bought from a Spiegel mail-order catalog. By nine he was performing with his brothers and neighborhood kids, a group he says became the R&B band The Fabulous Elites, traveling the country to perform.
Later he played with KC Express, signing with a record company. When he came to Fort Smith in the 1980s, he played with Gray Ghost, a group that gained national recognition.
As for JT, he came here by way of Little Rock, bringing his love of cooking with him. He remembers being eight years old and making a tuna melt for his mom. “This was long before a tuna melt was a thing,” he says. “I thought I’d made it up.”
Today, he’s an award-winning chef creating a menu that will knock you off your feet. One of his top sellers is Shrimp and Grits featuring jalapeño and cream cheese grits, shrimp in a Cajun cream sauce, and asparagus. Hazel’s Gourmet Chicken and Waffles is a great choice, as is the Chicken Fried Steak, Van Buren Catfish, and the Rib Eye. Try any one of those as an entrée, but not before you get the Southwestern Shrimp Cocktail with avocado cocktail sauce. JT won first place in a cooking competition with that recipe. For dessert, try Pecan Sweet Potato Pie, made by Hazel’s mama.
On Tuesday nights there’s live jazz music. Wednesday is dance night. Thursday the live music is a blast from the past. They even offer valet parking, so customers don’t have to look for a parking spot.
During the two-day grand opening, Larry B and the Cradle Rockers played. People were laughing and dancing and trying the brand-new menu. The full bar was open (the eatery is a private club since Van Buren is part of a dry county), and family had flown in from as far away as California.
Larry, Hazel and JT were exhausted and happy after it was over.
“I remember saying, ‘Here is our dream. We did it,’” Hazel says.
JT adds, “We had a minister come in with my uncle. He kept saying, ‘Y’all gonna have to move. This place isn’t going be big enough for long.’”
Larry chimes in. “A minister from Lavaca told me, ‘B, you just hold on. The going might be rough in the beginning, but you just hold on. You’re in for a blessing you can’t comprehend.’ I said, ‘I’m gonna take that and run!’”
Hazel adds. “We had a couple from Little Rock here for their first visit. They asked me when we were going to open in Little Rock. They kept calling this our ‘first restaurant.’ They said, ‘I can just see it.’”
While branching out is exciting to think about, they’re content making this spot everything it can be. Larry yawns, stretches his arms out in front of him. This life they love is filled with hard work. And even though it’s mid-afternoon, the day is just starting for this trio. It will be late evening before they retire, and when they do, they will fall asleep quickly, the effects of the day evident as they sink into bed. Tomorrow, though, they’ll be up early, waiting to see what happens next at Larry B’s Rhythm Room featuring Hazel’s Gourmet Chicken and Waffles. At this restaurant that embodies their biggest dreams yet.
Larry B’s Rhythm Room featuring Hazel’s Gourmet Chicken and Waffles
719 Main Street | Van Buren, Arkansas
Reservations for evening dining are recommended.