Little Rock Is Getting the Loving It Deserves
By Max Hartshorne
The Bud bottle never had a chance to hit its distant target. It was tossed by a novice and went crashing to the cement floor, quickly swept up by a smiling man with a white oxford shirt holding a red broom.
All eyes watched as the loud play-by-play was given on the mic by veteran judge Donovan Townsend.
We were in downtown Little Rock Arkansas, on a Thursday night. This was Midtowne Billiards’ Bottle Toss, to some who live here it’s their favorite event at a watering hole in this Capital City.
This ritual has been taking place for 20 years or more.
A second bottle was flung with more precision, scoring a perfect hoop into the round trash can. Not bad for a visiting writer from Massachusetts who earned a Bud for his shot, and gained a whole new appreciation for this city named for a small rock in the Arkansas River.
The Deep South
Arkansas is a hot state. It’s part of the deep south, and it can be languid and sweltering here, as the cicadas whine in the heat of a July afternoon.
That means it’s a place where vegetables grow big and fast and helps Arkansas produce Skippy peanut butter and more rice than any other state.
The organic food scene here is robust and the local farmers’ bounty is everywhere.
We had dinner with chefs who exclaim about persimmons and get text messages from the farmer’s markets.
Meeting the Mayor
Everyone in Little Rock seems to know everyone else we met, including Mayor Frank Scott, and former President Bill Clinton.
We sat down with Scott for some barbecue at Sim’s, in a Little Rock strip mall, where he told us what he planned to do for the city during his term, that began in January 2018.
Scott wants to convert a par three golf course in the city into public use, and expand the Little Rock Zoo. His goal is to focus on the quality of life issues, he said. One exciting new development is the arrival of a Czech-based gun manufacturer promising 576 jobs.
The Clintons and the Rock
You hear a lot about the Clintons when you spend time in Little Rock. Our airplane landed at the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport, and one of the city’s top tourist destinations is the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum.
This sprawling repository was built LEED-certified in 2004 and was responsible for turning a large section of downtown from unused and neglected to part of the city scene.
Many, many visitors have combined visits to the Library with a visit to Central High School as well as the spectacular Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, a three-hour drive north.
The rectangular building juts out in a confident prow toward the Arkansas River, “A bridge to the 21st century” as Bill used to say.
It includes a replica of the Oval Office and the Cabinet Room of the White House and for the former president, a putting green on the roof.
On the fourth floor is the private apartment used by the Clinton’s when Hillary and Bill visit Little Rock, which is pretty often. It would be and is a perfect home away from home when events and dinners are held here.
Inside the library, you can spend hours going back to the days of the 1990s, and see the archives, memorabilia, photographs, and videos of Bill’s exciting eight-year presidency.
For his detractors, there is only a small section devoted to the impeachment.
The University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service is in Little Rock, located next to the library, and we took our tour with the affable Skip Rutherford, an old friend and colleague of Bill’s who loves showing visitors around. About 130 graduate students are getting their masters degrees in public service here.
Building Around The Beast
Skip said the library had to be built around the gigantic 1993 Cadillac Presidential Limousine, known as the Beast, that greets visitors on the first floor.
This library has dramatically increased the safe, walkable footprint of downtown Little Rock. You can even jump on an old-fashioned 1930s style tramcar–FREE!–to get here from the other side of town.
Central High School
Along with the Clinton Center, Little Rock Central High School is a National Historic Site and a top tourist attraction in the city. A detailed and at times very emotional guided tour is available from US Park Rangers.
It’s not a tour short on facts or quotes, and in fact, it requires a complex chalk talk with diagrams by the ranger to fill in the many details of the saga of desegregation in 1957.
Park Ranger Bill Schweitzer said he took a group of people through the Central High School Tour and told us about one of his tour guests.
In the group at a bathroom break, she fell down on her knees and begin violently crying right in front of the girl’s room.
They finally asked her what was wrong, and she said it was because she was a student here in 1957, and they were beating up one of the members of the Little Rock 9 in that same bathroom, but she did nothing.
She said she still felt guilty about that, and in some ways, that’s what the whole city has taken a hit for.
Showing the World What’s Right
Yet since that dark time when it showed its worst, most racist side, the city strives to show the world that what happened at Central High School is in the distant past.
A visit to the school finds racial harmony and out a window, you can see the memorial to the brave black teenagers who broke through and forced desegregation here.
As a side note, Paul McCartney once said when he was playing in Little Rock that the famous Beatles song Blackbird–was written about the Central High School desegregation fight.
Culinary Little Rock
Food is a big part of the appeal of the Rock, and especially, the enthusiasm that the locals all have for the current rosters of restaurants and cafes.
One place that really turned around the part of the city that is called SoMa, is the restaurant South on Main.
It has a giant stage and creative comfort food.
The owner Chef Matt Bell may have packed his bags for Nashville in January, but the comfort food still pours out of the kitchen.
Over dinner at the popular Tacos and Tamales in the city’s Heights neighborhood, we picked up on some of the Little Rock culinary secrets, and one that’s not a secret at all.
People here love and eat gallons of cheese dip. Yes, the color resembles cheez whiz and yes, it’s ain’t really gourmet but it’s true. You’ll rarely go to any restaurant without having a scoop or two of their own version of cheese dip.
At Heights Taco & Tamale, they have the distinction of having the world’s top cheese dip in a competition in Washington DC in 2016, beating out 40 other competitors in a blind taste test.
Ben Brainard, one of the owners of Heights Taco and Tamale, explained that it’s a mix of American and Jack cheeses, cumin and that’s about it. Cheese dip was invented in Little Rock in 1947.
Ben and his mates in the band “Cons of Formant,” said that the thing about Little Rock is that it’s not a bucket list kind of place. “This is a place you have to want to come to.”
Music at the South on Main
On a Friday night, we enjoyed a crowd of hometown fans who sang along with and reminisced with a very entertaining young singer John Willis, who was telling the story of growing up young, and gay in Little Rock.
He belted out familiar torch songs by Billy Joel, and Elton John, Melissa Etheridge, and even Laura Nyro and had the crowd in his hands.
Dive Bars of Note in Little Rock
One of the Rock’s undeniable highlights is the live music. A few of the venues that we enjoyed were the White Water Tavern, a cabin-like joint with funky decor with cheap beer and grub and an outdoor fenced in backyard.
There’s where you meet the interesting people who end up in or visit the Rock. I said hello to a formidable woman who towered over me and said she played professional football.
I met a pair of young women from very hip Denton, Texas who said they were here to hear music, the first time.
I loved it already.
The White Water is the kind of tavern that every city that claims they have a great music scene would covet.
It’s got the intimate stage, it’s set in a residential neighborhood, and that back yard just brings the tribe together.
Visiting Little Rock:
As some of the local people we met told us, you’ve gotta want to come to this city, and to Arkansas, and if you come you’ll be rewarded.
Of the state’s 75 counties, half are dry, so you can’t buy a drop of booze in many parts of this rural state.
But in Little Rock, you’ll have your choice of seven microbreweries and a distillery called Rock Town where they make all manner of spirits.
Resources for your Visit
Outside of Little Rock: There are some pretty spectacular places to visit outside of the city, and a few that stood out for us were Petit Jean State Park, where there is a crazy natural geography that includes massive pitted boulders and some eye-popping waterfalls.
The sweeping view of the two rivers atop Pinnacle Mountain State Park is impressive.
Notable Eats in Little Rock
We enjoyed a few really hearty and tasty breakfasts in LR. One was @the Corner in downtown, where the sisters King do farm-t0-table food in a fun diner atmosphere. The Root Cafe is another breakfast stand-out, see the photo of their eggs benedict above.
People in the city root for their favorite restaurants like ball teams, and frequent them regularly. Another Hillcrest highlight is The Pantry Crest, owned by an immigrant from the Czech Republic, Tomas Bohm, who also runs The Pantry in West Little Rock.
Each of these restaurants substitutes comfort for fancy-schmancy, each brings groaning plates that leave you satisfied every time.
Our trip was sponsored by the Metro Little Rock Alliance but the opinions are the author’s own.