Little Rock, Arkansas: Everything From Fine Dining To Down-Home Grub

Sure, you're familiar with Nashville and Atlanta. But what about the smaller southern cities packing just as much flavor? In The Hidden South, Chris Chamberlain takes a look at a region of the South that is most certainly worth traveling to for the food.

As the capital of and largest city in the state of Arkansas, Little Rock is much more than just a convenient rest stop on the drive from Memphis to Dallas. Visitors discover a friendly, clean and vibrant city that is home to many corporate headquarters, cultural institutions and universities. They'll also encounter some great food from fine dining to down-home — if they know where to look. Follow along and you'll be ready to eat well in La Petite Roche.

Oxford American magazine moved its headquarters to Little Rock in 2002 and has shared its commentary on the best of Southern culture, music, literature and food since 1989. When the magazine acquired a new building in downtown for their offices, it was a logical idea to convert some of the extra space into a multi-use venue that could feature Southern food and showcase cultural and musical performances after dinner service is over.

The result is South on Main, where Matt Bell serves what he calls "refined Southern" food like chicken liver mousse and rabbit stew and even solicits family recipes from diners to preserve traditional dishes he can add his own spin to. Symbolic nods to their Southern heritage and their landlord include drinks served in blue mason jars and an old-fashioned typewriter used as decoration in the dining room and as an element of the restaurant's logo.

Novel desserts are divided into "pies, bars and jars" on the menu, with decadent chocolate-peanut butter pie, house-made "buttery finger" bars and little pickle jars filled with oatmeal cream pie and local Loblolly ice cream highlighting the roster. When the dishes are cleared, the performance space features performances from regional musicians and readings by Southern authors.

Bell came to South on Main from the kitchen of Ashley's at the Capital, the formal restaurant of the Capital Hotel, the grand dame of downtown Little Rock lodging. Situated near the state capitol (with an "o"), the Capital has been the choice of politicians, business travelers and fans of luxury for over 140 years. Ashley's describes itself as "a culinary journey into America's geographical heart; from the soulful delta to Ozarks, a celebration of Southern tradition meets genuine Midwestern values."

Ashley's food features Arkansas specialties like rice and a dizzying varieties of field peas that will make you realize that black-eyed peas aren't the only legume worth seeking out on a trip to the South. The menu trends toward gourmet with entrees ranging from organic risotto with oregon chanterelles to roast turbot, baby artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes and basil and desserts like strawberry-rhubarb trifle with crème diplomat.

For a slightly more casual dining environment, drop into the Capital Hotel's other restaurant, the Capital Bar and Grill. The culinary team at this Arkansas brasserie focuses more on comfort food than its more refined sister, Ashley. The bar area is a popular meeting spot for local politicos and business types who enjoy well-crafted cocktails and inventive bar snacks like fried black-eyed peas and spiced pecans while cool jazz plays in the background. Daily blue-plate lunch specials and a dinner menu of hearty steaks and chops make CBG a lobbyist's dream for entertaining or a great spot for a casual dinner date.

Speaking of political animals, Forty Two is located in the shrine to America's 42nd president at the William J. Clinton Presidential Center. Museum visitors can stop in for a quick sandwich or salad, or they can settle in for a more leisurely meal of Arkansas catfish or daily specials. Of course, you do have to pass through a metal detector to get in the restaurant, but that inconvenience is a small price to pay for the chance to dine in the House of Bubba.

For a down-home treat, head to Your Mama's Good Food where a rotating roster of lunch and dinner offerings usually features "chicken-fried" something. Whether it's chicken or steak that emerges from the fryer crispy and golden, you can count on a great plate of food covered with white or brown gravy and a long list of Southern vegetable dishes served cafeteria-style at this downtown eatery.

Finally, healthy appetites find an unhealthy solution to their hunger at Cotham's in the City. If you want to sound like a local, pronounce the name like "coddumz," and if you want to eat like a local, order the monster Hubcap Burger. While this featured dish isn't quite as big as an actual hubcap, it is about 8 inches across and each patty weighs in at a half-pound. Depending on your desired level of gluttony, the Hubcap Burger is offered as a Single, Double, Triple or unbelievably, a Quad.

Even though Bill Clinton has gone all vegan on us, there's probably somewhere deep in his heart that still lusts for a Hubcap at Cotham's.

South on Main

1304 Main Street

Little Rock, AR 72202


Ashley's at the Capital

Markham & Louisiana

Little Rock, AR 72201


Capital Bar & Grille

111 West Markham

Little Rock, AR 72201


Forty Two

1200 President Clinton Avenue

Little Rock, AR 72201


Your Mama's Good Food

215 Center Street

Little Rock, AR 72201


Cotham's in the City

1401 West 3rd Street

Little Rock, AR 72201


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