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Natives Guide: River Market district

Up from the grave to become the center of everything.



When the Arkansas Times moved into the Heritage West building on the corner of Markham and Scott streets in 1985, the River Market district didn't exist. The area to the east of the intersection of Markham and La Harpe was known then to locals as Old Town or the East Markham Warehouse District. One of the few businesses operating was a casket shop. The redevelopment of that ghost town into the River Market district wouldn't happen until a decade later. It came together thanks to the work of people like Jimmy Moses, who dreamed up a vision of Ottenheimer Hall, the 10,000-square-foot indoor market that would become the cornerstone of the district after visiting Pike Place Market in Seattle; and Bobby Roberts, who spearheaded the move of the Central Arkansas Library System's main branch into the old Fones Brothers Warehouse back when the area was moribund; President Bill Clinton and everyone who worked on the Clinton Presidential Center project; and you and me, whose taxes contributed to the city, county, state and federal funds that came together to kick-start the development of the district.

If the 1996 opening of the River Market's Ottenheimer Hall marked the birth of the district, it's funny to think that the neighborhood only turned 21 this year. Today, the area seems to have fulfilled the New Urbanist vision Moses, Roberts and other city leaders had for it years ago: All kinds of people work, shop, eat, live, stay in hotels and do stuff along and near President Clinton Avenue. But for many in Central Arkansas and beyond, the River Market neighborhood is where you go at night to club hop and see concerts and dance and, above all, drink. On a weekend night, the strip takes on a Beale Street feel — without the open containers and blues.

Your correspondent has plenty of firsthand experience with late nights along Clinton Avenue, but more with everything else the area is. For nearly all of my professional life, I've worked in the River Market district and, since I became a parent, more times than not, when I need to get the kids out of the house, it's to a destination downtown along the river.

On a Saturday when I'd gotten plenty of rest the night before, I'd start the day with the fam at @ the Corner (201 E. Markham St.), the self-styled modern diner that's directly under Arkansas Times' HQ, on the corner of Markham and Scott streets. It does weekend brunch, from 8:30 a.m. until 2 p.m. on Saturdays (and 10-2 on Sundays), so popular that there's often a line. Try the Brunch Poutine and the pancakes of the day.

Or, if we were pressed for time, I'd sate the kids with a breakfast pastry and the wife with a big cup of coffee from Nexus Coffee and Creative (301 President Clinton Ave.) or Zeteo Coffee (610 President Clinton), both of which joined Andina Cafe & Coffee Roastery (433 E. Third St.) this year to give the district an adequate number of coffee shops.

From there, we're gonna wear out the little scamps in Riverfront Park. First, we'll stop at Peabody Park, near the Junction Bridge, where the kids will climb the bouncy rope tree and disappear down slides and pop up unexpectedly in faraway tunnels like gophers. If it's warm, they'll shriek in the splash pad as long as we let them. To dry off, we'll wander down the path through the Vogel Schwartz Sculpture Garden, completed this year and packed with sculpture purchased by a nonprofit headed by park angel Dean Kumpuris, including, a favorite of my children, the Labrador that appears to be pooping.

Because, on this day at least, even after pancakes and hard playground playing, my children will never get tired, we're now headed west. If there's an interesting boat passing by, we might run up the Junction Bridge (there's an elevator, too, but it usually smells like urine). Otherwise, we're headed to the Museum of Discovery (500 President Clinton), where we have a family membership, which at $85 for a family of five easily pays for itself if you're going to go more than twice in a year. My kids would be happy just to spend 30 minutes feeding the puff cloth to the pneumatic system of tunnels in the basement level, but we'll also make time for junior physics lessons (bed of nails at least) and biology (tug of war with the intestine ropes). From there, it's a quick trip to the Witt Stephens Jr. Central Arkansas Nature Center (602 President Clinton) to take a peek at the alligator gar and think of lunch.

Since it's right across the street and it's my family's collective favorite restaurant, we'll pop over to Flying Fish (511 President Clinton), which is surely the longest standing, most successful and best-loved of all the River Market district eateries. My kids like it because their catfish comes in colorful cardboard boats, there are unlimited Saltines and sometimes they get lemonade. Their parents like it because all the fish can be made "snappy!" (or spicy), beer comes in goblets and it's easy to eat right, with a grilled plate, or indulge, with a fried platter.

If we weren't going there, we'd be at the unofficial Arkansas Times home restaurant, aka this writer's favorite pizza place in town, Iriana's (201 E. Markham); or Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken (300 President Clinton), which deserves its name; or Ottenheimer Hall (400 President Clinton), which has a revolving array of tenants (none survived from the opening). Our favorites: Nepali delights at Katmandu Momo and the Indian Feast, which earns its name. But there are so many options, even the pickiest of eaters will be OK. There's no way we'll splurge on Cache with the kiddos; we'll save that for another time.

We'll ride the wave of having full bellies into a few mind-expanding activities. First, to Main Branch (100 S. Rock St.) of the Central Arkansas Library System for a stack of books for everyone, then, because everyone needs a library of books they don't have to return, across the parking lot to River Market Books & Gifts (120 River Market Ave.), the mostly used bookstore the library runs from donations from patrons. Its books sell for at least half off the original price, and, especially when it comes to kids' books, I've found some true jewels I never would've otherwise found for very little money. From there, if mommy didn't work there and invite us often, we'd jog over to the Historic Arkansas Museum (200 E. Third St.) and see Arkansas arts and crafts, including guns, knives and artifacts from the Caddo, Osage and Quapaw, and take a tour of the historic grounds.

Instead, we'll retrieve a broken-down cardboard box from the car, and head to the Clinton Presidential Center to sled down the steep, well-worn grass hills. Over and over and over.

Magically, like Mary Poppins, an aunt or grandmother has appeared to shuttle the children off to who cares where, leaving the beleaguered parents time to unwind.

In 20 years, will our kids listen incredulously to old heads like yours truly talk about the rusty, dilapidated past of Little Rock just east of Interstate 30? Will "East Village" have entered into the local lexicon as the name for a place where everyone who likes to eat and drink and not simply be as a moniker conjured by businessmen who couldn't think of anything new?

Probably. In any case, that's where we're going. First to Rebel Kettle (822. E. Sixth St.) for a Working Glass Hero Blonde, some complimentary popcorn and a game of cornhole. Then to the new big dog of the Arkansas brewing scene, Lost Forty Brewing (501 Byrd St.), for a Snake Party IPA and some Hoppin' John hummus. Because this is our day, we'll magically land a lane at the stylish new Dust Bowl Lanes and Lounge (315 E. Capitol Ave.) to live out our "Big Lebowski" fantasies. Once we do "Islands in the Stream" in the lounge's karaoke room that'll be our cue to move on. If it were mid-January, the expected opening date for Fassler Hall, the German beer hall next door to the Dust Bowl that's also owned by The McNellie's Group of Tulsa, we'd schuss in for some schnitzel. Otherwise, we'll head back to the Clinton Center to the revamped 42 Bar and Table for the cioppino or, to partially offset all the hard living we've subjected our bodies to earlier, Clinton's Curry, a veggie-heavy vegan bowl.

Now, it's after 9 p.m., when the young folks start thinking about coming out to see a show at Stickyz Rock 'n' Roll Chicken Shack (107 River Market) or Revolution (300 President Clinton Ave.), or to sing along to Billy Joel at Ernie Biggs (307 President Clinton Ave.), or to drink a big whiskey at Big Whiskey (225 E. Markham St.), but despite the perfect-day magic we're riding, we're still old, so with just time for a nightcap, we're headed to Agazi 7 (322 Rock St.), the rooftop bar atop the new Hilton Garden Inn, to see how far we can see.

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