GO WEST

From folksy to sophisticated, Little Rock has its charms.



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Sometimes we just need a change of scenery, a boost to banish the blahs, a soothing brush with nature. Acquiring any of those doesn’t require getting frisked in airline terminals. It just means tossing a couple of bags in the car and heading over the bridge. 

Arkansas offers many avenues of escape, from Delta excursions, to mountain adventures, to urban exploring. Recently my husband and I opted for the latter, and in a mere two hours we arrived in Little Rock, the state’s capital and largest city. This wasn’t our first visit, but it was the first time I asked fellow journalists at the Arkansas Times to cough up some “insider tips” on touring their stomping grounds. As it turned out, most of their suggestions were our picks already. And despite some gusty wind and rain, we enjoyed our two-day getaway that captured a fine mix of the city’s old and new attractions.

For starters, we booked a room at the Capital Hotel. And from our first step into the lobby, till we bade farewell to the top-notch staff, we found everything first-rate.

Part of the Capital’s appeal draws from history and nostalgia. The partners originally intended it as a three-floor “multi-use” facility dedicated to retail stores, office space, and long-term lodging. The latter would accommodate traveling salesmen who would be working in the area for weeks or even months. Eventually, however, the builders turned their sights to erecting a luxury hotel at the corner of Markham and Louisiana. And when a friend sent them a note calling the idea “a capital enterprise . . . and I trust a capital success . . . ” they chose that adjective as a name for their hotel.

Please don’t visit Little Rock without getting up close and personal with its best natural attraction, the Arkansas River, as well as Riverfront Park that stretches for 11 miles along the banks.

The Capital opened in 1876 with heating and plumbing “and was compared favorably to the Palmer House in Chicago, which at the time was the grandest and most innovative hotel in the world,” says Chuck Magill, director of sales and marketing for the Capital. The building’s masonry exterior features a cast-iron facade, an architectural technique of the nineteenth century still present today in just a handful of structures. Special touches throughout the interior include a stained glass ceiling, seen through an iron atrium, with a richly colored design of the Arkansas State Capitol, and faux marble columns that beautifully replicate the originals. The replication technique is called scagliola, says Magill, and only two craftsmen in the country have mastered the process, which uses a mixture of plaster, dust, and stones that, when dry, is hand-treated to resemble marble.

Also of interest is the spacious elevator that — so the story goes — was designed to accommodate President Ulysses Grant and his horse during an 1880 visit. “That’s become legend,” smiles Magill, who adds that people were “grievously offended when I suggested it probably didn’t happen.”

What’s certain, he says, is that the Capital earned a name in its heyday for being a “sweet spot” for a candidate to announce running for election — because chances were good that he’d win. In more recent years, Magill adds, the hotel became President Bill Clinton’s unofficial headquarters.



 

Though rich in history, the hotel offers up-to-the-minute improvements as well as gracious amenities. When our greeter showed us to our room, he explained that in a 2007 renovation, walls had been knocked out to make some rooms larger. “You’ll think this is a great room,” he laughs, “great in size and in what it offers.” Furnished with both comfort and class, the room boasted a wide-screen high-definition TV, a walk-in closet, two sitting areas with handsome period-reproduction tables and chests, Fritte bedding, and a large bathroom with a deep tub, walk-in shower, double vanity, and Molton Brown bath products. Adding to the welcome were bottles of Mountain Valley bottled water, bowls of spiced pecans, and complimentary bathrobes and slippers, On our pillows each evening were packages of Southern Pecan Toffee from Arkansas-based Lambrecht.

Within walking distance of the hotel are numerous attractions. As lovers of times past and the stories they hold, we headed for the Historic Arkansas Museum. Nestled in a forest of downtown skyscrapers on East Third Street, the museum displays an array of Arkansas-made decorative arts, from silver, glass, and carved horns, to basketry, quilts, and paintings. Arranged on the walls and giving insights into nineteenth-century life are guns and knives so vital to pioneers.

Situated across the street and striking a quaint contrast to the contemporary-style museum are three of Little Rock’s original structures. The oldest is the Hinderliter Grog Shop, built in 1826 of red oak logs and cypress. Settlers and passers-through gathered here for lodging, news, and refreshment. On display near the grog shop’s hearth are items that would have belonged to typical guests of the era — a surveyor, a hunter, and a traveling salesman. Just a few feet away is the area where the grog, a mixture of rum and water, was served. For the bartender’s safety, it’s enclosed by vertical bars with only one small opening in the middle through which to pass the drinks. “When a brawl broke out, and with knives so common then,” our guide explains, “men were known to hurl their blades at the bartender.”

More recent history, the kind that spans the globe, is captured in the William J. Clinton Presidential Center. Whether you loved or loathed the boy from Hope, it’s surely worth a visit to see the timeline of events and issues that dominated his eight-year run in the White House. These range from welfare reform and the deficit reduction, to the Kosovo conflict and the Oklahoma City bombing. In a replica of the Cabinet Room, an interactive display lets visitors see how decisions were made about national affairs. Upstairs you’ll see personal items, from Christmas decorations and family photographs, to table settings for visiting dignitaries such as Nelson Mandela, and likenesses of Buddy the White House dog, and Socks the cat, including one painting of the famous feline wielding a mean trombone. In the introductory film you’ll hear Clinton describe how he met Hillary one night at the Yale library, when she walked across the room to introduce herself because, as she put it, “you’ve been staring at me all night.” Said her husband, “[For me] that was the best walk across a room she ever took.” If you go looking for the infamous blue dress, give it up. The Monica era is mentioned only briefly, as are impeachment proceedings brought on by Clinton’s “enemies.”

Again, despite your political leanings, the Presidential Center has plenty to interest anyone, including a restaurant with tasty food and quick service — and, running through May 22nd, a traveling exhibition titled “The Secret Art of Dr. Seuss.” Remember the delightful book, Oh! The Places You’ll Go? Those words rang true for William Jefferson Clinton.

Please don’t visit Little Rock without getting up close and personal with its best natural attraction, the Arkansas River, as well as Riverfront Park that stretches for 11 miles along the banks. We enjoyed the various sculptures and historical markers, the Ozark Pavilion (great for kids with its splash fountain, climbing wall, and tube slide), and the Sunken Plaza with an awesome river view.

And if you really want to get physical, discover the River Trail designed to connect Little Rock to its sister city, North Little Rock. We accessed the trail via the Junction Railroad Bridge, a landmark that has loomed over the river for a century. You can take the elevator up four flights — or, as I did, get your heart pumping and climb the metal steps — to the walkway where bikers, walkers, and skateboarders zipped past. Linger to enjoy the vista of water, skyline, and bridges carrying electric streetcars around the city and into North Little Rock. A key component of the River Trail is the Big Dam Bridge — billed as the world’s longest bridge built for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Within walking distance of the
hotel are numerous attractions. As lovers of
times past and the stories they hold, we headed
for the Historic Arkansas Museum.

To catch our breath after our riverfront exertions, we meandered back toward downtown, to the vibrant River Market. Once a decaying warehouse district, it now boasts galleries, bars, and shops selling everything from fresh veggies to hip clothes and hand-made jewelry. At the center is the Market Hall and its mouthwatering scents. On the drizzly day we visited, the hall’s light-filled, high-ceilinged ambience called us to stay awhile. From 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. you can sample — or gorge yourself on — hand-crafted breads, pastries, pies, and cookies, and ethnic specialties that range from Mexican to Middle Eastern. Order the locally roasted coffee or a brewsky at the beer garden. Or follow my lead and indulge in a scrumptious chocolate-cookie brownie topped with butter pecan ice cream from the Rivershore Eatery. The River Market district is also home to the Farmer’s Market, where from May to October produce growers and eager shoppers fill the open-air pavilions.

And the river’s Amphitheatre hosts music acts from spring to fall, including on May 27th through the 29th, the annual Riverfest with numerous big-name acts — Little Rock’s answer to our Beale Street Music Fest.

After leaving the river area, we headed east and took a drive through the Quapaw Quarter, occupying several city blocks surrounding the Governor’s Mansion on Center Street, to admire the century-old mansions. One stand-out is the Italianate Revival-style Villa Marre which regular viewers of TV’s Designing Women saw each week in the show’s opening credits.

On Mother’s Day weekend, May 7th and 8th, several homes in the district will open to the public during the 2011 Quapaw Quarter Pilgrimage Tour. For more information, call 501-374-7966.

Not far from Quapaw in another historic district called MacArthur Park (named after Little Rock native General Douglas MacArthur) is the Arkansas Arts Center, where we were fortunate to view the Young Arkansas Artists 50th Annual Exhibition.  There, promising students from kindergarten to 12th grade demonstrated amazing talent. Represented in the Center’s permanent collection are drawings and paintings by Cezanne and Rembrandt, Pollock and O’Keefe, and contemporary crafts that range from teapots and toys, to turned wood and metalwork. Also worth a look are the watercolors and drawings by French Neo-Impressionist Paul Signac. Though the Center has struggled at times during its 50-year history, the past decade has seen it double in size.

On Mother’s Day weekend, May 7th and 8th, several homes in the district will open to the public during the 2011 Quapaw Quarter Pilgrimage Tour. For more information, call 501-374-7966.

Though one of the young editors at the Arkansas Times ticked off a few hoppin’ places to spend the wee hours, we limited our nightlife to a drink in the Capital’s Bar & Grille. For a closer look at the bar scene, you can visit www.littlerock.com/nightlife/music. You might dig Willie D’s Dueling Piano Bar and its nightly singalong that gets louder as the liquor flows, or the White Water Tavern, where on certain nights the chef whips up a meal in his pop-up kitchen. And for more information on other cultural and entertainment attractions — including the city’s zoo — visit www.littlerock.org/public relations/arts-culture.

When you do make the trip to Arkansas’ major metropolis, splurge a little and stay at the Capital Hotel. Or at least spend a few hours in the  lobby, where the friendly, funny staff will help you find your way around the city — or make you feel so at home you won’t want to leave.

Time to Eat

We took most of our dining cues from the Arkansas Times staffers, and they didn’t disappoint.

Ashley’s is the fine-dining restaurant in the Capital Hotel, whose executive chef Lee Richards is in the running for the prestigious James Beard Award for his “New Americana” cuisine. Our gorgeously presented three-course dinner pleased the eye and palate — and satisfied even my lusty appetite. We ordered the smoked trout with lemon dill potato salad; wild striped bass with Israeli couscous; and Gulf shrimp and rice grits with homemade andouille. Every flavor hit the mark. For dessert, buttermilk pie with Chantilly cream and lemon sherbet — just the right size and a perfect finishing touch.

In the southwest part of the city, we tried the pork sandwich at Sims Barbecue. Hailing from the barbecue capital of the world, how could we not try Sims’ version, especially when a Times editor described it as “unlike anything I’ve ever had in Memphis”? And different it is. With a vinegary tang softened by brown-sugar sweetness, the sauce drenched the thinly shredded meat piled between white bread slices. I had to eat it with a fork, but polished off every morsel. The turnip greens — a side that comes with corn muffins! — may be the best I ever had.

Although Za Za is located in The Heights, a venerable old-money neighborhood, there’s nothing old about this chic fast-casual eatery serving the freshest of salads and wood-fired pizzas. Try the feta cheese-potato combination; the rosemary and lemon flavors linger on the tongue like a happy dream. The staff is young and energetic and the manager wouldn’t let me leave without a refreshing gelato. All this and wine too.

Finally, an old favorite of ours is the Creole-style Faded Rose. Dim and cozy with a lively bar crowd, Rose serves steaks, seafood, and more. If it’s spice you like, order the grilled redfish with a Pontchartrain sauce. Those roasted red peppers make it zing.

For more information on area restaurants, go to www.littlerock.com/dining And read about a unique Little Rock experience, ordering tacos from a trailer — described as “the cheap and delicious world of taco trucks” — at www.arktimes.com. — MS

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