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Natives Guide: Downtown Little Rock

It's back.


For 100 years, my family has been grousing and grappling with downtown Little Rock. My two-greats grandfather, Alexander Millar, was a preacher, college president and the owner of the Arkansas Methodist newspaper, which had offices along a newspaper row that stretched from the Old State House — or in the years after the current state Capitol was finished in 1912, the Very Recent State House — to what's now President Clinton Avenue and, later, on Scott Street. He did a lot of things and had a lot of passions, but chief among them, best I can tell, was advocating for moral probity: He was a "no" on Sunday baseball, gambling and, especially, alcohol. For him, it seems all of Little Rock's problems of the day stemmed from the sale and consumption of booze.

Alex, who died in 1940, never owned or drove a car even though his son owned a car dealership. His grandson and my grandfather, George Millar Jr., spent a good deal of his professional life trying to save downtown Little Rock from the car culture that, at least in part, led to the suburbanization of Little Rock and cities everywhere. He failed.

As the head of the Little Rock Housing Authority, he was a key player in the Little Rock Urban Renewal Project, which led to the creation of Interstate 630, decimated much of the historic fabric of the city (more than 1,600 buildings were destroyed in the name of reducing blight, including Alex's old Scott Street office) and created a racial divide that persists today. In the 1970s, George was executive director of Metrocentre, a plan to revive downtown Little Rock with a shopping mall. He seemed to sense that the project might be doomed before it even got off the ground. "Little Rock downtown is sick ... to a degree and is certainly not dying and has a lot of life left yet," he said in 1975. "But anyone who can tell you that we can bring downtown Little Rock back to the days I remember when it was the No. 1 shopping center in Arkansas is foolhardy." He was right. Metrocentre failed and, aside from office towers, downtown Little Rock was ghostly for decades.

By the time I came along as a journalist and editor in the early aughts, I was just in time to see everything dead, complain about it being dead, express hope about some early signs of revitalization, relay skepticism about those visions coming to pass, celebrate widespread redevelopment and complain about the foolhardy city planning that led to the Little Rock Tech Park.

That history mostly settles into the background on a big day downtown. If I could, I'd start every day with breakfast at The Root Cafe (1500 Main St.), the local-foods-focused restaurant that does inventive comfort food. But some days, when grab-and-go is more the speed, or we need to camp out and do some work, we'll hit Community Bakery (1200 Main St.), a South Main institution since the early 1980s, long before anyone thought of calling the neighborhood SoMa.

That came after Anita Davis started buying up big chunks of South Main property and putting interesting things on them. She's the landlord for The Root, and also thanks to her, you can learn about the history of purses at her Esse Purse Museum (1510 Main St.) and buy fancy soaps and crayon rocks at The Green Corner Store and profane socks and vintage records at Moxy Mercantile, drink coffee and pick up a baguette from an outlet of Boulevard Bread Co., and get a scoop or three of the greatest and most inventive ice cream ever at Loblolly Creamery (all at 1423 Main St.). If it were a Sunday, in between April and November, you'd want to go to the Bernice Garden (1401 S. Main), more land that Davis owns, which she's made into a park and sculpture garden open to the public, for the always-hopping Bernice Garden Farmers' Market.

On the north end of Main, or more precisely, the corner of Louisiana and Markham streets, the Capital Hotel (111 W. Markham St.) opened in 1872 (and was probably an inspiration for some of my ancestor's anti-saloon screeds) and remains an anchor for socializing, politicking and wining and dining, especially since owner Warren Stephens gave it a $24 million top-to-bottom renovation that was completed in 2007. Its two restaurants, One Eleven and the Capital Bar & Grill, consistently serve some of the city's best food and drink.

In recent years, all kinds of fine restaurants have popped up nearby to compete with the Capital. Just around the corner on Main Street, there's an outlet of the Memphis-based Soul Fish Cafe (306 Main St.), which serves up catfish to rival any other in town; a welcome revival of the classic Italian restaurant Bruno's Little Italy (310 Main St.); and the lively New American fare at Samantha's Tap Room & Wood Grill (322 Main St.).

The aforementioned Little Rock Tech Park has spruced up several blocks along Main that were mostly moribund and brought downtown a much-needed coffee shop in Blue Sail Coffee (417 Main St.); otherwise, a lot of taxpayer dollars appear to have gone to making snazzy offices for businesses that already were here or would've been here without the snazzy offices.

Speaking of snazzy, how about some ideal date night scenarios? Option 1 would start at Three Fold Noodles and Dumpling Co. (611 S. Main St.) to eat authentic and delicious Chinese dumplings and buns, take a quick detour into RAO Video (609 Main St.), one of the oldest extant businesses on Main and the self-proclaimed oldest continually operating video store in the country to see what the hell is going on in there, then head to whatever is showing at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre (601 Main St.), the long-running and consistently delightful professional theater, or to The Rep's newish Black Box Theater (518 Main St.) across the street. Option 2 would take you to Doe's Eat Place (1023 W. Markham St.), the belovedly grimy former Bill Clinton hangout for a decadent feast of salmon, steak, soaked salad, french fries and Texas toast, or, for less money but equally large portions, a couple of rib plates with beans and greens and cornbread and a 40-ounce beer at Sims Bar-B-Que (2415 Broadway St.), the best 'cue in town. Option 3 would be for dinner and a show at South on Main (1304 Main St.), the Oxford American-magazine affiliated restaurant that specializes in upscale Southern fare and doubles as one of the best music venues in town.

Other downtown must-dos: Someone in your life needs an old grenade, a camo jacket or some other military surplus item from Bennett's Military Supplies (608 Main St.), which has been in business since 1870. See the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra or another concert in the Robinson Center (426 W. Markham St.) after the $24 million renovation that was completed earlier this year. Drive or walk around the Quapaw Quarter and the Central High neighborhood and see all the beautiful historic homes that weren't destroyed during urban renewal, and take a tour of the Little Rock Central High School Museum Visitor Center (2120 W. Daisy L. Gatson Bates Drive) to be reminded of at least one reason why it took so long for Little Rock's downtown to rebound. For soul-satisfying fine art and contemporary craft, go to the Arkansas Arts Center (501 E. Ninth St.); don't be shy about grabbing a slice at Larry's Pizza (1122 Center St.) or Vino's (923 W. Seventh St.) afterward.

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