One of the advantages of growing up in Central Arkansas is that I have been able to watch trends and areas of the local food scene rise and fall (and sometimes rise again) over the years. Just because Little Rock doesn’t have something now, or an area is popular, doesn’t mean it was always that way.
The River Market is one of those places in town you really need to view over a 20-25 year history to wrap your head around the current situation. On one hand, more money is poured into the River Market than any other part of town, on the other very few locals ever visit it. Checking with several restaurants and bars who track the numbers, in a lot of cases only around 15-30 percent of sales come from locals in the area.
It was not always the case. When the huge River Market revival happened back in the 90’s locals were big on the market. It was really the only good thing that had happened to downtown in a while. I loved the market back then. I had my first drink at a bar in the market, a few years before I was 21 actually. I hope the statute of limitations is over on that.
Spots like Flying Saucer, Stickyz, Gusanos, Flying Fish and others all thrived during those early days. As did some spots we lost like Underground Pub (a personal favorite), Bosco’s, Flying Burrito, Way out Willy’s, and Vermillion Water Grill.
It was in the mid 00’s that locals started to turn on the River Market. It became full of tourists, accelerated even more by the Clinton Center. Bars like Willy D’s began to be the big attraction, and it attracted an audience that pushed the locals away.
After all, there is only so many times you can watch them blow cigarette smoke into the tip jar while singing The Joker by Steve Miller Band before it stops being cool. Places like this defined the market, and as a result myself, like other locals, gradually stopped showing up.
Then something amazing happened over the last few years while none of us were looking, the River Market suddenly became worth visiting again.
Many of the faces are still the same. Stickyz is still Stickyz, just without the chicken fingerz tag line, Saucer still has more beers than you can count, Dugan’s is still the best Irish pub in town. But everything grew up a bit.
Now at Saucer it is smoke free and their food doesn’t suck (as bad anyway). The Jägermeister machines are gone from Stickyz replaced with more craft beer and some amazing vegetarian dishes showed up on the menu. Dizzy’s found their groove and now produces some outstanding food and is one of the biggest supporters in the community.
Then some new things brought diversity. Buenos Aries has some remarkable Argentinian food, At the Corner has this fun mix of classic diner and breakfast food mixed with completely unmatched Canadian dishes, and even Cache, despite a rough few years, has come along showing that a high end restaurant can work well in the area and it doesn’t have to be a steakhouse. We even have a small brewery in Damgoode that produces quality craft beers along with good pizza (something that wasn’t missing at all) in the area.
Then there is the River Market Hall itself, that has more diversity in cuisine per square foot that any other spot in Arkansas.
It is (finally) not all about nightlife either in the River Market. Nexus has quickly become my go-to coffee shop. Kilwins is a very good sweet shop. Stratton’s is a fantastic spot to pick up some lunch on the run or some quick grocery items.
Add to that the surrounding area which includes most of the breweries in town, some amazing fine dining spots like Capital Hotel and Samantha’s, unique places like Southern Gourmasian and Three Fold, and all the cool development happening on South Main, it gives a lot of reason for locals to make the River Market and surrounding area a destination, not a spot to run from.
If you love local like me, it is one of the few places where you can find a large concentration of local spots. Even the handful of chains are mostly small regional spots like Gus’ that have around 20, mostly in this area of the country, or Flying Saucer that has 15 other locations in the general area.
Plus there is more to love coming. The rooftop bar is going to be a great place to be, and the Forty Two is starting to serve dinner. It is time to embrace the River Market again. It has the structure to be a fun local hangout, not just a spot for tourists and people in their early 20’s trying to pick up a date.