The Arkansas capital has seen its share of booms and busts, but today the city is on the move
When I flew out of Little Rock on January 1, 1986, to try to become a writer in Manhattan, there didn’t seem to be much of a place to leave. In the early 1970s, Main Street had been closed to traffic and turned into a pedestrian mall, but over time, one with fewer and fewer pedestrians. The retail stores that had for decades anchored the city’s lively center shuttered one by one or moved to malls in the city’s western precincts. People drove downtown to work at the banks and government offices, then abandoned it at night. Weekends were tumbleweedy. The bronze sculpture by Henry Moore planted at the major intersection of Main and Capitol was a lonely, abstract traffic cop, and a couple of months before I left, a crew filming a miniseries about a terrorist attack had its pick of empty storefronts to blow up. (Little Rock was an apt stand-in for Washington because our state capitol building is a smaller replica of the U.S. Capitol.)
I ended up making a living as a writer and editor in New York but often wondered if I’d turned my back on my true subject (and that of so many writers): home. After my mother died on January 1, 2007, twenty-one years to the day after I had left and six months after my brother had died at age fifty, leaving my father as alone as the Moore, I decided to return, proving true the line from Little Rock writer Charles Portis’s novel The Dog of the South: “A lot of people leave Arkansas and most of them come back sooner or later. They can’t quite achieve escape velocity.”
There is an undeniable pull to the place, in part because of its natural beauty, extolled almost since day one (counting from the white man’s discovery, it must be added). Located along the Arkansas River, smack in the middle of the state, a two-hour drive from anywhere else (if you consider Memphis anywhere), Little Rock gets its name from the minor outcropping where eighteenth-century French explorer Jean-Baptiste Bénard de La Harpe saw what he described as a hilly, “très beaux” landscape after the flat boredom of the Delta he had surveyed from his river bark. A century and a half later, entrepreneur Mifflin Gibbs of Philadelphia, who settled in Little Rock during Reconstruction and became the first elected black municipal judge in the country, landed on the riverbank and declared, “Every prospect pleases.” In another 150 years, in 2008, a letter writer to the New York Times, describing a cross-country car trip, proclaimed: “Who outside of Arkansas knew Little Rock was so beautiful?”
When I returned to keep Dad company and to write a book—about high-school football and race relations in my hometown—I was also struck anew by the profusion of magnolias and crape myrtles and hydrangeas that seemed to sprout from every yard. But I and my fellow Little Rockians are not, by and large, moony naturalists given to idle gazing. Like the railroad men who unsentimentally planted a bridge on our founding stone, we want to engage with and move through the landscape. The frontier habit of purposeful industry of our ancestors, a survival tactic in those earlier times, still lingers, even in our leisure. We run and bike and prune our gardens and add birds to our life lists and shoot deer and ducks and catch trout. We can’t quite achieve escape velocity, but, like our most famous native son, we will not sit still. We are Clinton.
The former president returned as well, in 2004, to park his library on the bank of the river, in a former run-down warehouse district. A riverine revival was already under way with the development of an amphitheater, a park, a few condos, and the River Market pavilions with retail booths and food stalls, but the president’s decision to locate his legacy just downstream accelerated the growth. Bars, restaurants, and music clubs blossomed, renovations of historic buildings commenced, more condos sprung up, and cultural institutions along the river, like the Museum of Discovery and the Old State House Museum, gave themselves makeovers. Farther afield, the Interstate 630 corridor became a medical mecca, with no fewer than five hospitals of renown on its exits. And this past summer, the Arkansas Times reviewed fourteen taco trucks, an indication of our burgeoning Latino population. Though much of Main Street remains vacant, this was not the Little Rock I had left.
I’d missed a generation who had grown up here and were changing the place, like brothers Brent and Craig Renaud. Though they live in and work primarily out of New York, the acclaimed documentary filmmakers (Dope Sick Love; Off to War) and graduates of Little Rock Central High School decided to start a film festival in their hometown, whose single art house seems to hang on by the skin of its sprocket teeth. Four years later, MovieMaker magazine named it one of “25 film festivals worth the entry fee.” Peers who never left were remaking the city, too. Warren Stephens, who had taken over Stephens Inc., the investment company his uncle and father had built into one of the largest non–Wall Street firms in the country, poured millions into renovating the Capital Hotel and built a new minor-league baseball stadium in North Little Rock. Scott McGehee decided to see what would happen if he baked fresh bread and prepared food with local produce, and now Little Rock is eating things like arugula on its pizza at McGehee’s ZaZa franchises, which he is developing with former KFC magnate and Kentucky governor John Y. Brown, Jr. We’re not Walmart—that’s northwest Arkansas and don’t you forget it—but we can still do big things here.
We’re hardly perfect: Some of us cling too seriously to Confederate nostalgia, and almost all of us have a near-fetishistic obsession with Razorback football. But they’re all versions of devotion. As another returnee, Antwan Phillips, a young black lawyer from Little Rock who’d gone to college at Bowdoin in Maine, told me when I asked him what he loved about the city: “I love the allegiance of Little Rock people, their loyalty to the city.”
While I was gone, those with greater loyalty than I stayed and were doing what needed to be done. They built a big damn bridge over an Arkansas River dam in western Little Rock. They called it, with customary wryness, the Big Dam Bridge. It links the two long stretches of the River Trail, which can lead bike riders, runners, in-line skaters, and dog walkers on a fifteen-mile loop along the waterfronts of Little Rock and North Little Rock. On a recent early-morning River Trail run, I saw two armadillos, two rabbits, a snake slithering in the river, and a near-horizontal pileated woodpecker languidly poking the underside of a branch. Not all is Beatrix Potter on the trail, though. Once, on an almost-deserted part of the path, I came across a rabbit with a broken leg, possibly having been hit by a speeding biker. Disturbed but helpless in my running clothes, eight miles from my car, I explained the situation to a dog walker a quarter-mile farther along. He was a paramedic, just off the overnight shift, out for a pleasant morning stroll. I had ruined it for him. Resigned but uncomplaining, Little Rockian that he was, he retreated to his truck for a shovel, ready to do what needed to be done.
Along the River
Whether you’re after a behemoth-size burger or a trophy trout, twenty-six places to catch the city’s best
When the historic Capital Hotel reopened in 2007 after a comprehensive renovation, the kitchen at Ashley’s restaurant was furnished with enough top-of-the-line equipment to make Gordon Ramsey swear off swearing. The best installation, however, may have been the man who helms that kitchen, chef Lee Richardson (see page 105). He has tapped area farmers to forge an Arkavore cuisine, and the $49 three-course prix fixe dinner is the best bargain in town for the quality. Markham and Louisiana; capitalhotel.com
Brave New Restaurant
Hard to find on the second floor of a nondescript office building, Brave New Restaurant, with its terrace overlooking the Arkansas River, is the loveliest place in the city to dine on a temperate fall night. Locals fill the dining room for longtime favorites from chef Peter Brave, like pecan-crusted trout and chicken breast from Falling Sky Farm in the Ozarks, stuffed with Boursin cheese. 2300 Cottondale Lane;bravenewrestaurant.com
Twenty minutes from downtown Little Rock in the historic farming community of Scott, Cotham’s Mercantile hovers on stilts over a stream, an old general store serving the celebrated Hubcap burger, which almost eclipses its plate. Alternately, lunches like gravy-draped chicken-fried steak are just as effective cholesterol-delivery systems. 5301 Hwy. 161, Scott;cothamsinthecity.com
The area’s premier upscale Italian restaurant is across the river in the revivifying Argenta neighborhood of downtown North Little Rock. Homemade pastas and specialties like fried sage leaves join hearty entrées like a New Zealand elk chop with a brandy cream sauce. 425 Main St., North Little Rock, capeo.us
Last year, Little Rock’s most venerable (since 1937) and venerated rib joint left behind its flagship location on 33rd Street (complete with bullet holes) for a new spot on Roosevelt and Broadway, one of three franchises in the city. At every Sims, you’ll find rib meat that is likely to drop off the bone when you pick it up. Roosevelt and Broadway; simsbarbeque-ar.com
Whole Hog Café
Owner and chef Ron Blasingame passed away much too soon at age sixty last year, but his barbecue legacy lives on. Modest but exacting, the onetime amateur barbecue contest winner started small in Little Rock’s Riverdale area and became so successful he franchised as far away as New Mexico. The Riverdale location still reigns, turning out sublime sandwiches to douse with one of six proprietary sauces. 2516 Cantrell Rd.; wholehogcafe.com
ZaZa Fine Salad + Wood-Oven Pizza Co.
After a divorce, Scott McGehee sold his ex-wife his successful first venture, Boulevard Bread Co. (she promised not to change anything, which tells you something about his accomplishment). Now McGehee, with partner John Beachboard, has thrown himself into this pizza endeavor, concocting pies of Neopolitan authenticity and facilitating construct-your-own salads that at peak times require airport-screening-length switchbacks. 5600 Kavanaugh Blvd. www.zazapizzaandsalad.com
The wraparound porch is the place in town for drinks and Italian-genre snacks among Little Rock’s young see-and-be-seen crowd, and late kitchen hours make it stand out in a city where the restaurants generally follow an early-to-bed prescription. 605 N. Beechwood St.; [link http://www.ciaobaci.org ciaobaci.org]
In 2007, three C-130 instructors stationed at the Little Rock Air Force Base decided, some would say insanely, to plant an authentic Irish pub at North Little Rock’s main intersection. With flowing Guinness, carved wood nooks, and bartenders who actually care about soccer—um, football—Cregeen’s seems like it’s been there since the original Bloomsday. 301 Main St., North Little Rock; [link http://www.cregeens.com cregeens.com]
Political signs from local and state campaigns plaster the back wall of this Cajun restaurant, and at the L-shaped bar, the premium is on conversation. Regulars abound, but weeknight bartender Chess Green makes newbies feel welcome, as long as you have something interesting to say. 1619 Rebsamen Park Rd.; [link http://www.thefadedrose.com thefadedrose.com]
Little Rock’s most notorious after-midnight dive, Midtown hosts everyone from regular lushes to high-powered lawyers straight from client dinners, whether celebrating their successes or trying to forget failures. A late arrival to work in Little Rock requires only a one-word explanation: “Midtown.” 1316 S. Main St.; www.midtownar.com
White Water Tavern
The sister rock clubs in the River Market District, Sticky Fingerz and the Revolution Music Room, tend to book the bigger-name touring acts. But White Water, down by the railroad viaduct near the state capitol, will sweep you along in a torrent of cheap beer, divey charm, and the best local and regional music. Your new favorite Little Rock band, such as Kevin Kerby and Battery, awaits. 2500 West 7th St.; 501-375-8400
Financier Warren Stephens spent untold millions rehabilitating this 1877 gem, which combines historic charm with modern bells and Wi-Fi. The grand, opulent lobby and unsurpassed service are old-school in the best sense of the term. On Wednesday through Saturday nights, Ted Ludwig, virtuoso seven-string jazz guitarist and Little Rock fixture, plays for free in the Capital Bar. 111 W. Markham; www.capitalhotel.com
The owners of the fabled Memphis hotel improbably converted this nondescript structure (once the Excelsior, where Paula Jones alleged a Clinton impropriety) into a top-notch branch, complete with lobby fountain and duck march. It’s conveniently located next to the convention center and a short walk from the entertainment strip of Clinton Avenue. 3 Statehouse Plaza; www.peabodylittlerock.com
Rosemont Inn & Cottages
Located in the city’s Quawpaw
Quarter neighborhood of historic Victorian houses not far from downtown, Rosemont consists of two properties, an 1880 home that’s on the National Register of Historic Places and a more private set of three connected 1890 cottages. The largest, Barkley, comes with a fireplace, a full kitchen, and its own private garden. 515 W. 15th St.; rosemontoflittlerock.com
Argenta Certified Arkansas Farmers’ Market
Jody Hardin, bearded prophet of local produce, pioneered this market in North Little Rock when vendors in Little Rock’s River Market began carrying nonnative items. With ample parking and strict rules about homegrown fruits and veggies (or home-slaughtered meat, should you so desire), it’s a de rigueur Saturday-morning browse for foodies. 6th and Main streets, North Little Rock; [link http://www.arkansasfood.net arkansasfood.net]
The chic of the Rock shop at Barbara/Jean for high-end women’s designer wear and beauty products, including Escada, Dolce & Gabbana, and Diane Von Furstenberg. Add no-attitude Southern charm to the mix, and you can save your New York trips for musicals rather than shopping. 7811 Cantrell Rd.; barbarajean.com]
Occupying two floors of a house in the century-old Hillcrest neighborhood, this crafty, eclectic store picks the best from Little Rock’s creative folk, from painters and jewelry designers to soap and candle makers. If you want a concise overview of what artists in Central Arkansas are producing, duck into the Turtle. 2616 Kavanaugh Blvd.
Fort Thompson Sporting Goods
C. B. Thompson was nine months old when his father started a community grocery store and stocked a few hunting supplies, including .22 shells he’d sell two-for-a-penny during the Depression. Now, almost eighty years later, the store has the best range of hunting gear in the area, and the courtly C. B. still works the counter. Duck hunters will appreciate the selection of calls from local experts, including Echo, designed by Rick Dunn, a past winner of the annual World’s Championship Duck Calling Contest in nearby Stuttgart. 5802 Warden Rd., Sherwood;fortthompsononline.com
This slick new running store is owned by two former track greats who competed for legendary coach John McDonnell at the University of Arkansas: NCAA record holder Gary Taylor and three-time Olympian Frank O’Mara. Besides offering expert shoe fitting, the store has become a kind of neighborhood clubhouse for runners of all levels. Join the regular Tuesday six p.m. run through the (hilly!) Heights neighborhood to get a great workout and a tour of where the elite of Little Rock live. 1819 N. Grant St.; gorunning.com
The Ozark Angler
Up your chances of landing a trophy trout with a stop at this Little Rock store for supplies, local lore, and the extensive knowledge of expert guides like Tom Hawthorne, the former owner who has been fishing the Little Red River for rainbows and browns for more than two decades. A sister store in Heber Springs is close to the Little Red, and whether you bring your own gear or need to rent, the staff will hook you up with everything from river-specific tactics to custom flies. 12305 Chenal Pkwy.; ozarkangler.com
See & Do
Big Dam Bridge
The mile-long bike and pedestrian bridge that bestrides the Arkansas River in western Little Rock has become a recreational mecca for its citizens. Mid-bridge at sunset or sunrise shows town and landscape at their most naturally gorgeous. 7600 Rebsamen Park Rd.; bigdambridge.com
Central High School Visitors Center
Dedicated in 2007 at the fiftieth anniversary of the tumultuous integration of Little Rock’s Central High, the center concisely lays out the history of the Little Rock Nine, the group of black students who faced bitter protests upon their enrollment in the then all-white school. Visiting the national historic site, you can even find Spirit Trickey, the daughter of one of the Nine (Minnijean Brown Trickey) answering questions; she’s a ranger there. 2120 Daisy L. Gatson Bates Dr.; nps.gov/chsc
Little Red River
Annette Hurley, president of Arkansas Fly Fishers, says you can be on the Little Red River near Heber Springs “in the water, geared and suited up” in an hour and a half from Little Rock. That river held the world record for brown trout (40 pounds, 4 ounces, caught in 1992) until last year. The fall is a beautiful time to fish, and if you want to beat the crowds, Hurley recommends hitting the water during a Razorback football game. A guide is a good idea if you’re new to the river. arkansasflyfishers.com
Just twenty minutes from downtown Little Rock, this 525-acre preserve, owned by the Nature Conservancy and the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, is decked out with a boardwalk weaving among bald cypress and water tupelo. It’s a haven for native fauna, including more than a hundred species of birds and countless mosquitoes. Bring Off! Border Lane, off Bingham Rd.; 501-324-9619
William J. Clinton Presidential Library & Museum
When it opened in 2004 in a former industrial area on the river, the repository of Clintoniana came in for more than its fair share of sniping: It looks like a trailer, it whitewashes history, it’s a massive ego stroke. Six years on, there’s little argument that it has been a powerful economic and cultural engine for the community. In addition to the permanent exhibits about the Clinton presidency, it hosts popular touring shows and visiting speakers ranging from Madeline Albright to writer Dave Eggers. 1200 President Clinton Ave.; clintonlibrary.gov
Five residents who prove Little Rock has plenty to brag about
Education on a Mission
When Walter Kimbrough asked a colleague in 2004 if he should take the president’s job at Little Rock’s Philander Smith College, he received a one-word answer: “No!” The historically black private school, founded by the Methodist Church to educate freed slaves, was going through a difficult period: Its finances were a shambles, and despite a longtime reputation for producing high-caliber graduates such as former surgeon general Dr. Joycelyn Elders, its academic reputation was suffering. But Kimbrough, forty-three, who had worked in administration at Albany State in Georgia, doesn’t like the word no. He took the job, firming up the bottom line and raising both the academic standards and the school’s profile. He has promoted a social justice theme and instituted the Bless the Mic speaker series, which has hosted such button pushers as Ann Coulter and the Reverend Al Sharpton and drawn Little Rockians to campus who had never before crossed its threshold. He tweets (@HipHopPrez) and blogs and loves that Little Rock is “a close-knit community.” If anything, he sometimes thinks the city is “too nice”: “I wish we were a little more aggressive and had a little bit more of a chip on our shoulder.”
A native of Conway, Arkansas, Graham Gordy was compiling an impressive résumé as an actor and playwright in New York City. Comedian Mike Myers even commissioned him to help write The Love Guru, which after its release in 2008 became one of the worst-reviewed movies of its time. Showing an alligator-thick skin in spite of his actor good looks, Gordy continued writing, though he ditched New York and settled in Little Rock, which has provided a creative bounty. “Being in the South and specifically being home influences how I write,” he says. As the big studio film was flopping, War Eagle, Arkansas, an earlier script produced and filmed in the state about a friendship between a star high-school baseball pitcher and a fellow student with cerebral palsy, was making the festival rounds, where it won multiple best-picture awards. And bigger fish are frying: Gordy’s pilot for a series about a Southern college football program, The Wreck, has been picked up by the AMC network (home of Mad Men), with The Blind Side director John Lee Hancock to executive-produce.
Indy Grotto & Jason Weinheimer
Somewhere in the middle of Web 1.0 (around 1999), the Boondogs were the toast of the Internet music world. The rootsy Little Rock group won an online battle of the bands sponsored by Garageband.com, which in those heady days guaranteed a $250,000 recording contract. But because of the Web site’s ultimate financial difficulties, their big CD wound up as a nice coaster with a hole in it. The Boondogs, however, didn’t die. Eleven years on, bandleaders Jason Weinheimer and his wife, native Australian Indy Grotto, have become the musical equivalent of locavore farmers, so identified with the state that their songs have been adopted for TV spots by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism. Their seventh full-length album is due out this fall, and they continue to play local and regional gigs, all while taking their two children to minor-league baseball games and enjoying a lo-fi life in a lo-fi town. “As long as I can keep writing songs and raising my children,” says Grotto, “I’m happy with where I am.”
Champion of Local Flavors
Little Rockians of a certain age will recall the reign of Jacques and Suzanne, the French restaurant that ruled the city’s special-occasion dining from high atop what is now the Regions Bank Building. Today, Chef Lee Richardson brings haute cuisine down to earth in the ground-floor digs of the Capital Hotel’s restaurant, Ashley’s. What Richardson has done is hone in on cuisine particular to Arkansas, if filtered through his modern imagination. A New Orleans native and Katrina refugee, Richardson arrived in Little Rock in the spring of 2006 and promptly began researching Arkansas culinary traditions, realizing that the state possessed “land that was relatively unspoiled.” He transforms familiar Arkansas crops, like rice, which he puts in a coffee grinder and uses for breading, and he experiments with resources Arkansans hardly knew they had, like paddlefish roe caviar. He’ll do a double duck dish, with some seared and some braised. Frenchified duck à l’orange is merely a canard; Lee Richardson does Arkansas food right.