Best art playground
Pump the brakes on your letter writing campaign, you who see graffiti and immediately think "defacement." You won't find our cover image on the back of some downtown building. The walls are props courtesy of The Rep, and the painting, done by Jose Hernandez, happened inside Dedicated, the gallery and venue he runs on the corner of Seventh and Spring. When we featured Dedicated in the Times earlier this year, Hernandez explained his motivation for the space: "I just want to paint. And I want to see other people paint. I want to see people do what they love, whether it's music, art, writing, whatever ... and teaching about it, so that kids can see that there's alternative ways to getting a job, working all your life for nothing." That plan seems to be going well. The night before our photo shoot, interpretive dancers contorted to improvised music from members of the local band Ginsu Wives, while artists spray-painted eight-foot stretches of Saran wrap in the middle of the warehouse performance space. Other times, Hernandez says, skateboarders might take to the half-pipe at one end of the space, while DJs spin and muralists work. Mixed media always, he says. Check it out, art-y types. There's nothing else like it in Little Rock.
If you're the type who can't countenance an empty moment without whipping out your smart phone and hurling some furrowed-browed birds at pigs or angling for a triple-word score against your "friends," consider a new iPhone game from Mobile FWD, a new mobile app development company based in Northwest Arkansas. It's called Trivi.al, and it's habit-forming. Particularly when it's played as it's intended—against people you know. Think Words with Friends, but trivia. Or if you're ignorant of mobile gaming, think a lightning-round of Trivial Pursuit played on your phone against people you know. Trivi.al just launched a couple weeks ago, so to get the fullest experience, you'll need to recruit some friends to play. We've already got an intra-office grudge match going. One of us, who prides himself in knowing more inane trivia than your average "Jeopardy" contestant and isn't shy about telling everyone, is getting destroyed by the quiet guy in the office. But not for long!
If you're not into recreational pharmaceuticals, this award has to go to Mount Magazine State Park, which sits atop the highest point in Arkansas (2,700 feet!) and looms over the tiny hamlet of Havana in Yell County. With truly amazing views, a stunning, multi-million-dollar lodge complex or romantic private cabins, hiking, biking, flora and fauna, it's a great escape. BONUS: It's about 15 degrees cooler at the top of the mountain at any given time, making it the perfect destination in the wilting season of summer.
Best local boy made good
For literary types like us, that's gotta be Bryan Borland, who started the Alexander, Ark., Sibling Rivalry Press on his kitchen table a few years back and has since grown it into a powerhouse in the niche of gay/lesbian/transgender literature. In an era when we regularly hear that print is dead, Borland is actually making a profit publishing poetry, and is expanding rapidly into the world of fiction as projects present themselves. As an added bonus, Sibling Rivalry is home to the journal Assaracus, which is — if you can believe it — the only journal dedicated to poetry by gay authors in the U.S. Something tells us that if you informed the literati in NYC or San Fran that the only gay poetry journal is America is headquartered in a guy's spare bedroom in Alexander, Arkansas, they'd solemnly dump their crantinis into the gutter, cast down their black turtlenecks, and resolve to rethink their life choices.
Best used bookstore in the known universe
Without a doubt, that would be Dickson Street Bookshop up in Fayetteville, a bookworm's labyrinth of floor-to-ceiling shelves that just goes on and on and on, winding up and down and around until a bibliophile might be convinced he's somehow wandered into heaven. We go in there every time we're in Fay'ville, and we're convinced that they somehow have amassed an entirely new selection every time we go in, Hogwarts Academy Library style. Though we've spent hours there on occasion, we find whole sections we seemed to have missed the last time we were in. For the kind of person who loves the smell of old books, it's definitely a destination.
Best foodstuff safari
In addition to stuff like furniture, jewelry, toys and more, the giganto-Kroger out on Chenal Parkway in West Little Rock has a truly amazing array of canned goods and condiments from around the world, with big sections devoted to the prepackaged foodstuffs from various countries and regions. Looking for Indian curries and sauces, but don't want to hit the Indian grocery? They've got lots of that. Need a can of Heinz Beans (in a blue can which simply says: "BEANS") to make yourself feel like you're huddling in a bomb shelter during the London Blitz? They've got that as well, along with that most Brit of Brit desserts: canned Spotted Dick. And yes, you are required to photograph yourself with the Spotted Dick can. African brands, Caribbean brands, Australian brands, real-deal Italian and German brands. For the adventurous sort when it comes to food, going in and browsing can have sweet rewards.
Best place to see big cats in Northwest Arkansas
You could tramp through the woods looking for the mountain lions that locals report from time to time, but they're hard to find. And according to the Game and Fish Commission, they don't even exist, which makes sightings that much more difficult.
It's easier to go to the Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge outside Eureka Springs. Boy, do they have big cats here – tigers, the biggest; almost-as-big lions; beautiful black leopards; bobcats bob-bob-bobbing along. There are non-feline hangers-on as well: bears, birds, monkeys. To all appearances, the animals are well cared for. If you're there in the afternoon, you can watch feeding time. The inmates are hearty eaters. You can even stay on the grounds overnight in a cabin, if you've nerve enough.
Best place to see painted buntings in Central Arkansas on public property
If you want to see the closest thing North American has to a parrot (since we killed off all our parakeets in the 19th century), drive over to Terry Lock and Dam, to the farthest parking lot (which affords a view of the dam), park your car and start looking in the scrubby brush and trees along the road. It's best to do this in spring when they are singing, but they are so colorful — red, blue and yellow — that you might catch a quick sighting in summer. Forget winter; that's when they abandon Arkansas for Central America, though the way the climate is changing, they might only go no further south than Union County in future.
Best place to get high-quality sardines while filling a prescription
We've all known that sudden, irresistible craving for sardines. Sometimes it comes at night, and sometimes it strikes just as we realize we need to refill a prescription too. Must we make two separate trips? Not if we go to the Walgreen's on 12th Street. There'll be a pharmacist on duty until 10 p.m. and in the grocery section you'll find the thing that you really wanted. The local supermarkets have sardines in soybean oil, in mustard sauce, in Louisiana hot sauce, even in water. But they don't have the "lightly smoked" sardines, what Julia Child called "the prince of sardines." Walgreens does. They're Chicken of the Sea, too. No off-brand 'dines here. Enjoy.
Best new bridge
Though its name isn't as provocative as the Big Dam Bridge's, Two Rivers Bridge is a handsome addition to Little Rock's biking and hiking trails and its new appeal as a city of spectacular river crossings and trails. On the Little Rock side, a landscaped wetland, nicely crafted rock-walled sidewalks and a long steel sculpture cut in the shape of the Arkansas River make a beautiful entrance (accessible by car or the River Trail). The bridge rises gently as it crosses the Big Maumelle River, offering a unique view of the peninsula ahead, a place of tall pines and green undergrowth, where deer nibble and birds flit. There are picnic tables, places to fish and a trail to the rest of the 1,000-acre Two Rivers Park, encompassing woods, marsh and meadow. The best way to cross the bridge this particular summer, it seems, would be on a bicycle, to get a breeze; otherwise, you might perish in the heat. Take water.
OK, this is an easy pick. Walmart heiress Alice Walton has invested nearly $2 billion (an educated guess, not fact) in building Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville and filling it with American masterpieces, in a gorgeous Ozark mountain ravine surrounded by 120 acres of woods. Surely everyone in Arkansas knows the details by now: Seven galleries in a Moshe Safdie-designed structure that spans two pools fed by Crystal Springs, with artworks from the 1600s to the present, along with a library, classrooms, auditorium and Eleven, a restaurant. That's indoors. The grounds are spectacular, threaded with seven trails for hiking, biking, and art, bird and plant enthusiasts. Sargent, Copley, Cole, Catlin, Peale, Stuart, Durand, Moran, Eakins, Cassatt, Heade, Homer, Bellows, Henri, Parrish, Hartley, Gorky, Nevelson, O'Keeffe, Noland, Bearden, Rockwell, Calder, Thiebaud, Lichtenstein, Hofmann, Hopper, Marisol, Warhol, Oldenburg, Holzer, Walker, di Suvero, Turrell, Rothko, Catlett ... need we say more? There is more, but you have to stop somewhere.
Best place to see animated art: www.warrencriswell.com
Warren Criswell is a painter and sculptor of some renown in Arkansas, but he also creates art that moves, and not by CGI either, but laborious drawing. They are short — the longest is 4 minutes, and some run only seconds — but they are wondrous, funny, philosophical and set to excellent music, including original compositions by pianist Robert Boury. Stick with "Fading" to see clouds become people then not people then silhouettes and finally, Criswell's omnipresent crow. There's a nice bit of soft porn, too, with a terrific animation of one of the artist's familiar strippers pole-dancing ("William Wilson").
Best music by Arkansas artists to sing with your children
The recordings of Trout Fishing in America — aka Keith Grimwood and Ezra Idlet — ought to part of every child's collection, and we do mean every child in the U.S.A., not just Arkansas. The fine Fayetteville musicians' lyrics aren't sappy or preachy and you will find yourself singing ...
"Oh, I used to be a dinosaur
I thought I was so cool.
Future fossil fuel,
that's all I ever was.
When I was a dinosaur ..."
... with your kid even when she's in college.
The Central Arkansas Astronomical Society doesn't keep the heavens to itself. Members share their love for the unfathomable with star parties for folks who don't know telescopes from telephones. They turn their scopes to the skies to share what they know about Saturn and Mars, meteor showers, nebulae, special stars, at Pinnacle Mountain and Woolly Hollow state parks. Yes, there's some light pollution at Pinnacle from Little Rock's glare. But you can still see, and what you're looking at is the light of things billions and billions of miles away. (And yes, you should say that in your Carl Sagan voice). Ponder the universe and puts things in perspective. See you at the Perseids.
Best Little Rock neighborhood for showing off the talents of architecture students at the University of Arkansas
If you haven't been to the Pettaway neighborhood, you're missing out on seeing the latest in affordable housing: Modular homes designed by the fourth and fifth year students in the UA Fay Jones School of Architecture's Design/Build program. The first UA Design Build home, a glass and wood one-story partly prefabricated in Fayetteville, was built in 2010 at 1519 Commerce St. That was followed by a cantilevered design at 1805 Commerce in 2011; a new house is going up now at 1901 Cumberland. The Downtown Little Rock Community Development Corp. is partnering with the Design/Build program, as well as its other efforts to revitalize the neighborhood: It's rehabilitated historic homes, installed Little Rock's first shipping container homes (on Twenty-first Street) and worked with the University of Arkansas's Community Design Center, which designed a Pettaway Pocket Neighborhood model that clusters homes around a central common area.
Best cheap furniture
On the first three Wednesdays of each month, from 7:30 a.m.-3 p.m., you can pick through all the stuff the State of Arkansas decided it didn't need anymore at the Arkansas Marketing and Redistribution warehouse at 6620 Young Road in Little Rock. Among the things you can score: cheap, sturdy furniture and God only knows what else. For a mere $20, Times editor Lindsey Millar scored a nice desk, one of those pieces of utilitarian, institutional-type furniture designed to withstand the rebirth of the New Madrid Fault. The warehouse is packed with scores of desks, chairs, tables, lamps, shelves and more, all at prices that are dramatically cheaper than similar stuff sold at the big thrift stores. In addition to the no-frills furniture and rows of old calculators and laptops, we've seen scuba gear, microscopes, power tools of various sorts, DVDs, speakers and electronics of mysterious function. You never know what you'll find, but one thing is nearly guaranteed: At 7:30 a.m. on the first Wednesday of the month, the place will be swarming with savvy pickers looking for bargains.
Best city in Northwest Arkansas to drink fantastic house-brewed craft beer
That'd be Fayetteville, no question. The brewpub scene up there has really taken off in the last year or so, what with West Mountain Brewery (Tiny Tim's Pizza's Siamese twin) finally, after more than a decade, living up to its name by actually brewing some beer. And it is very, very good beer. Brewmaster Andy Coates is a vet of Chicago's Goose Island and Colorado's Great Divide Brewing Co. Get at least one round of the sampler so you can try all the varieties. They're all great, but the saison and the blonde are especially delicious and incredibly fresh-tasting. There's also Tanglewood Branch Beer Co. at the corner of South School Avenue and Fifteenth Street. We haven't ventured to Tanglewood yet, but by all accounts the former convenience store has been transformed into a haven for suds lovers. We also hear the nosh — mostly sandwiches and salads — is exceptional. Then there's the brand spanking new Fossil Cove Brewing Co., which opened in June. Fossil Cove is a microbrewery that produces beer for local restaurants and bars and expects to begin bottling soon. It offers brewery tours and has a bar that's open Wednesday through Sunday.
Best place to mosey into and get lost in a world of pre big-box retail wonder
Kraftco Hardware & Building Supply. Every single square inch of this place is filled with all manner of hardware, tools, cooking utensils, camping equipment, doo-dads, whatchamacallits and more. The selection of cast-iron cookware is formidable, and the staff is incredibly knowledgeable, friendly and helpful. But don't let Kraftco's old-school charm fool you: This place is a serious hardware store and in many respects, its selection puts Lowe's and the like to shame.
Best place downtown to get some Thai green curry
Bangkok Thai Cuisine. This little booth in the River Market's Ottenheimer Hall serves up some very reliable Thai standards, such as Pad Thai, spring rolls and a variety of curries. But the green curry is the standout. It's rich, delicious, with plenty of chicken and vegetables and just the right touch of heat. Getting there early won't hurt; there's often a line by about 11:45 or so.
Best forgotten mural
Keep going south on Broadway, a few blocks past Little Rock's Mount Holly Cemetery. On your left, you'll come to a shuttered Dairy Queen that obviously has a storied history, most recently housing a nail salon. There, on a concrete wall in the parking lot of the Dairy Queen, you'll find it. It curls in homage to the elements, nearly smothered by vines and small trees, with huge chunks missing altogether. But it's still there, and it's still beautiful. That wall hosts a fantastic mural, a swirl of history and myth depicted in time-faded colors and glittering tile. There's the Titanic sinking between a Chinamen and an African village, an octopus dancing alongside a matador. An ocean, teaming with aquatic life, threatening to overtake a pink and yellow pagoda. A green cat plays jazz sax, his overall-clad feline friend plucks a banjo, and all of this is juxtaposed with a mermaid, a Chinese dragon and a grinning Howard Finster-esque moon. This thing is layered and amazing, employing a mix of primitive and sophisticated design techniques and inviting a gaggle of questions. Who created it and why and when? Why this particular array of whimsical subject matter? We'd love to know more, but for now, we're just grateful that, even in its current state of disrepair, it's still accessible to visitors.
Best place to climb a wall
Let's be clear — we are not gym people. Most of us choose to get our exercise (or lack thereof) under more natural, less repetitive conditions. But an evening (usually Wednesdays, since that's when the ladies get a reduced rate) at the Little Rock Climbing Center has never let us down. If we were to purchase a gym membership, this would undoubtedly be the place. You don't need any experience going in, because the staff will quickly school you in "belaying" your partner, and if you don't have a partner, there are automatic belay stations. If you're timid, there's a climbing treadmill where you can find your bearings before heading up a 30-foot wall. And you're hooked into a harness the whole time which, you know, greatly minimizes the potential for death and serious injury. Not only is playing like Spiderman loads of fun and a little surreal, it's also an amazing workout. Our first experience left us with such jelly arms that even yanking open the refrigerator door seemed like more effort than it was worth. If you're trying to slim down, just think of that as a free bonus.
Best restaurant patio
Set in the heart of downtown Conway, Michelangelo's gourmet Italian dinners are sure to please any restaurateur, but Michelangelo's best kept secret is the patio on the top level. On weekends guests are led by an escort to the rooftop where they are greeted by strands of café lights, a live band, a dance floor, and the Arkansas sunset in the background. Pair this with the decadent menu and drink specials and you've got the best patio seat in Arkansas.