For most non-Arkansans, Little Rock conjures two images: Central High School, a landmark in the history of desegregation, and Bill and Hillary Clinton, who . . . well, are making their own marks on the world. But the city has boomed in the last decade, quietly becoming a cultural destination -- which is a bit of a surprise to former residents like me.
I got my jolt last summer when I returned for my high school reunion. It was a bigger jolt for my boyfriend, Alex, a Yankee with his own preconceived notions. Sure, he'd spent time in Dallas and New Orleans -- had even seen the Southern landscape on a college theater troupe tour bus -- but what makes Little Rock so special?
Although this city of 187,000-plus hasn't lost its Southern charm -- you still hear an abundance of "hons," "y'alls" and "fixin' to gos," and, depending on your circle, mentions of the Clintons or Mike and Janet Huckabee -- signs of growth are everywhere. West Little Rock has embraced its suburban lifestyle with shopping and dining options as well as an Imax theater. But the real action is in and around downtown, which continues its dramatic makeover as the historical, political and cultural epicenter.
No revitalized community should be without a restored luxury hotel. Fittingly located in the center of downtown's West Markham District -- where the old and new Little Rock meet -- the Capital Hotel is a gem of Southern hospitality. Like many other cities' grand old sites, the Capital's stardom had tarnished. But it underwent a two-year renovation and reopened in 2007 with all its charms intact. Rooms in the 1872 building were combined and expanded into 94 luxe accommodations.
But it is Ashley's, the hotel restaurant, that's generating the buzz. Chef Lee Richardson left New Orleans' famed Restaurant August after Hurricane Katrina and came to town shortly after the Capital closed for remodeling. The hotel's pristine, white-tiled lobby and stained-glass ceiling recall the era of top hats and tails, but the restaurant's focus is on the latest culinary influences.
Richardson has revamped Ashley's menu, using regional ingredients for a high-class take on Southern favorites for such dishes as Arkansas rice grits with tasso and rock shrimp, and sweet potato gnocchi with creme fraiche. Foodies were so impressed that Richardson was named a 2008 and 2009 James Beard Foundation Award semifinalist for best chef in the South.
Arkansas has certainly made a name for itself in politics, so we know what you're really here to see -- the William J. Clinton Presidential Library & Museum, near the Arkansas River. Democrats will appreciate that the James Polshek-designed building, which opened in 2004, focuses mainly on the high points of Clinton's life. A walking tour showcases such things as the ex-president's environmental initiatives, Chelsea Clinton's ballet slippers and a photo of Bill in his high school marching band garb.
The Clinton Museum Store is a few blocks away on (surprise!) President Clinton Avenue, in case you want to pick up an "I Miss Bill" bumper sticker or T-shirt.
If you really want to be a part of the action, claim a rickety table at Doe's Eat Place and keep your ears tuned for political gossip. Looking every bit the unassuming small-town diner, the corner shop is a favorite of Bill Clinton's and is still a gathering place for state and local power brokers.
Doe's may occupy a worn sliver of downtown, but a mile and a half away wild nights are calling in and around President Clinton Avenue. The main thoroughfare of the River Market District, home to the aforementioned eponymous gift shop, is a party hopper's paradise. After dark, live music pours out from bars such as Sticky Fingerz Rock 'n' Roll Chicken Shack. Diners and brew houses feed the foot traffic as the area takes on a vibe similar to Sixth Street in Austin, Texas.
The River Market District was just coming into its own when I was a local. Now, numerous art galleries and shops flank the bars, many of which do a brisk lunch business. The area is also home to the downtown farmers market, which is open Tuesdays and Saturdays, May through October.
But there's more to Little Rock than partying and politics. A few blocks from the Capital, and a stone's throw from the Clinton Library, is the 1,800-foot Junction Bridge pedestrian walkway that opened in 2008. It rises about 40 feet above the Arkansas River, connecting the River Market District to neighboring North Little Rock and its entertainment district. The stroll across the Junction Bridge isn't as strenuous as a hike up Pinnacle Mountain west of the city, but it does offer a scenic opportunity to prepare for lunch at any one of the numerous eateries near the hotel.
For me, said lunch meant pizza and drinks at my favorite high school hangout, Vino's Brewpub, this time trading Dr Pepper for house-brewed Rainbow Wheat beer.
At the high school reunion, I spoke with friends about how Little Rock has grown, and we argued over which ventures have improved the city. But we did agree on one thing: Though it grows more cosmopolitan by the day, Little Rock will never lose its Southern charm.
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If you go
THE BEST WAY TO LITTLE ROCK
From LAX, Southwest has direct flights to Little Rock, while American, United, Southwest, Continental and Northwest offer connecting flights (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $198.
WHERE TO STAY
Capital Hotel, 111 W. Markham St.; (501) 374-7474, www.capitalhotel.com. Historic Southern hotel, still glowing from a face-lift, has 94 suite-style rooms well-appointed with luxuries. Doubles from $199 a night.
The Empress of Little Rock, 2120 Louisiana St.; (877) 374-7966, www.theempress.com. Queen Anne mansion in the Quapaw Quarter, now renovated into a bed-and-breakfast. Doubles from $135 a night.
La Quinta Inn & Suites, 617 S. Broadway; (800) 531-5900, www.lq.com. Moderately priced chain a few blocks from the bar and restaurant scene and near the Bill Clinton McDonald's. Doubles from $89 a night.
Peabody Hotel, 3 Statehouse Plaza; (501) 906-4000, www.peabodylittlerock.com. Renovated and reopened under the famous Memphis, Tenn., hotel's moniker in 2002 -- complete with ducks. Doubles from $149 a night.
WHERE TO EAT
Ashley's, 111 W. Markham St.; (501) 370-7011, www.capitalhotel. Lee Richardson's Southern charm has an upscale twist at the refurbished Capital Hotel's equally refined restaurant. Fixed-price three-course dinner for $49; evening tasting menu and wine pairing: $95.
Doe's Eat Place, 1023 W. Markham St.; (501) 376-1195, www.doeseatplace.net. Little Rock institution a few blocks from the Capital serves steak by the pound and tamales with chili and fries. Lunch: $4 and up; dinner: $8 and up.
Vino's Brewpub, 923 W. 7th St.; (501) 375-8466, www.vinosbrewpub.com. Beloved brew house several blocks from the Rivermarket District that's famous for calzones and ales. Pizza by the slice or the pie (large $17.50), sandwiches and salads. $2 to $10.
Whole Hog, 2516 Cantrell Road; (501) 664-5025, www.wholehogcafe.com. Barbecue restaurant chain serves regional favorites such as pulled-pork or pulled-chicken sandwiches and beef brisket and ribs platters. $4 to $12.
Your Mama's Good Food, 220 W. 4th St., No. 130; (501) 372-1811. Southern food like fried catfish, chicken-fried steak and okra served cafeteria-style to a lunchtime crowd. Breakfast is also available. $7 to $10.
TO LEARN MORE
Little Rock Visitor Information Center at historic Curran Hall, 615 E. Capitol Ave., Little Rock; (501) 371-0076, www.littlerock.com/curran-hall/.