Cheers in the Heights predates the TV show "Cheers" by a few years, so it wasn't conceived as a neighborhood spot where "everybody knows your name." But that's kind of what it is. Sure, patrons flock to Cheers from all over town and beyond for lunch and dinner, but there's a definite comfy-but-trendy Heights feel to the place.
A table of 40-something women whose outfits would suggest two had just finished yoga class and two had come straight from the tennis court had a waitress snap their picture as they sipped Chardonnay. Surely it was on Facebook moments later.
A neighborhood dad in a CCLR cap and his two kids snuck up rather silently as he pulled their electric golf cart into the parking lot. On the other side of the enclosed patio — the plastic sheeting rolled up on this pleasant late-spring day — three tables encroached a bit into the next-door parking lot, as three older regulars took advantage of the open air to fire up cigarettes.
It's a homey place, and the tight confines in the restaurant's interior mean everyone must be comfortable with one another — including the kitchen staff, as you must invade that space to find the bathrooms. If you have to wait you likely can strike up a conversation with Samantha Tanner, who on our lunch visit was the final quality-control check before each plate left the kitchen in the hands of the veteran, friendly wait staff. It's a boisterous bistro but not too loud to carry on a conversation.
Cheers had a long life as a simpler, smaller burger-centric spot before the Tanners took over, expanding the menu, adding more of a Cajun influence, enhancing the patio and solidifying Cheers' reputation as one of the city's best mid-priced restaurants.
Cheers has a "dinner" section of the menu, but those items can be ordered before 5 p.m., and the rest of the menu is available day or night, so Cheers can be as affordable as you want it to be all day long.
Cheese dip is ubiquitous in Arkansas — one reason we love this state — and Cheers' is a reasonable representation: orange, silky smooth, mildly but interestingly spiced with just a hint of heat. It's $5.50 for a decent size "small" bowl and $6.50 for large.
The New Orleans-style barbecued shrimp appetizer ($11.50) is very close to what you find in the namesake city. We were thrilled there were 15 plump shrimp, swimming in a red pepper flake-laden, oily sauce — perfect for dipping with the accompanying bread. The dish could have used a bit of salt but otherwise was on target.
Any self-respecting Little Rock restaurant better have a good burger, and Cheers definitely does: A juicy, likely 1/3-pound patty cooked just as requested (just-pink medium), served on a soft, buttery brioche bun delivered by the amazing Arkansas Fresh bakery ($7.50). With rings of purple onion, fresh leaf lettuce and gooed up with mayo and melted pepper jack, served with non-greasy, homemade chips — damn, it was fine.
The grilled salmon salad ($13) was a hit for two reasons — the salmon and the salad. The approximately six-ounce filet was grilled with blackening spices and served with a salad of candied pecans, Craisins, cucumber, strawberries, purple onion, cherry tomatoes and bleu cheese among a mix of spinach and regular greens and dosed with a non-puckering lemony vinaigrette.
The portabella ravioli ($14.50 with salad; add $3 for grilled chicken, $5.50 for grilled shrimp) was tasty but a bit sparse — four largish ravioli in a sea of Cajun cream sauce that had a nice kick but was a bit thin. The catch of the day (a rather steep $29.95) was a slightly smaller than expected slab of semi-blackened snapper, likely 5-6 ounces. It was cooked well.
The tomato and caper cream sauce was fine but a bit lukewarm; we preferred the fish straight. The accompanying orzo was flecked with carrot, spinach, red pepper and a few chick peas.
Our party of two each had dessert options. The "premium dessert special" ($6.50) was chocolate cobbler — a warmed brownie (microshot, we'd guess) topped with a fat scoop of rich vanilla ice cream, whipped cream and chocolate sauce. That's another ubiquitous offering, but it's kind of hard to mess it up. Cheers didn't.
We don't know Pat, but his/her homemade carrot cake (a deal at $4.50) is a fine hunk of moist cake with a very buttery cream cheese icing, served slightly warm.
Consistency in food quality, service, atmosphere and ambiance has kept Cheers in business for decades. There's no reason to expect any of that to change.