"I've walked in here in a prom dress and I've come here in pajamas," a young woman told me on a recent night out at the Hillcrest Fountain bar. "It's comfortable and easy."
"She's not just saying that," chimed in bartender Richard Dean. "Pajamas and a prom dress, she's done both."
The Hillcrest watering hole, this year's Toast of the Town winner for best bar, is a testament to the simple genius of a neighborhood pub. Serve up cold beer at good prices in a relaxed setting. That's it. A space for people to unwind and for strangers to become friends.
"The bar is made by its customers," Dean said. "We're just a beer and wine bar that happens to have great people."
It's the sort of place where you can come alone because you're bound to run into someone you know. Or if not, you'll feel like you know at least a few folks pretty well by the time you leave.
"You can always expect the same thing," one patron told me. "The best bartenders in Little Rock. They know what you drink on whatever day of the week it is. And everyone knows everyone. Over the years, you become friends with everyone here."
Sara and Daniel Bryant, two of the Fountain owners, opened the bar in 2005, inspired in part by Table and Ale, a small neighborhood bar in Fayetteville where Sara Bryant used to bartend. The Bryants — who also own or co-own Big Whiskey's, Ernie Biggs, and Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken — weren't thinking big at the time. In part, these Hillcrest residents just wanted a neighborhood bar they could enjoy themselves.
"We figured I'd work three nights and my cousin [Sara Koger, now a co-owner] would work three nights and we'd make tips and my husband would have a place to watch football with his friends — and hopefully we'd break even," Sara Bryant said.
It turns out that the Bryants weren't the only ones in Hillcrest craving a friendly spot. The Fountain has become the neighborhood bar of choice for the Hillcrest set, building a base of diehard-loyal customers since it opened eight years ago. It's a no-frills, no-gimmicks kind of place. The pool and shuffleboard tables are always busy. They don't serve food and they don't serve liquor ("keeps it calm," Bryant explains). The bar's slogan is "the home you hit before you head home" and that's about right. It's a cozy spot to chat and laugh and have one too many.
Smoking inside is allowed, lending the bar an additional comfortable dive feel, or uncomfortable haze, depending on your perspective. If you want some fresh air, there's a large outdoor patio, added about four years ago, in the back.
"You've got the next-door funk coming over from Canon Grill and you get to watch the drama going down in the Kroger parking lot," one patron said. "It's what a patio should be."
And what is it about those bartenders, who every customer I spoke with called the best in town? "We just all love our job and have a good time and it shows," Dean said. "You can go into places that people just aren't happy and you can feel it. We all love it. There's not a whole lot to what we do. But being a bartender isn't just about mixing drinks. It's being able to talk to people, handle problems, offer words of advice."
It sounds like a cliche to say that the bartenders and the customers have become a family over the years, but it's the truth. "I guarantee you more than half the people in there have my cell phone," Dean said. "We've been with each other for years."