At Rock City Eats, we’re in the business of reporting on and promoting Central Arkansas’ food scene. There really is a lot here to enjoy, and even the most mediocre local restaurant here does a better job than a vast majority of the chain restaurants that still dominate the landscape. But still, readers are always asking, “What’s the best spot in town?” It’s a question I hesitate to answer because it’s highly subjective, and frankly my answer isn’t always the same.
So over the past few weeks, I’ve worked out a rundown of what I think is the cream of the crop in Central Arkansas. These are the twelve places I always take guests who are in from out of town. It’s where I tell my friends to go when they’re looking for something new. In my mind, they represent the best our small part of this country has to offer. Here it is, the best of the best, in alphabetical order:
The Capital Hotel – This one is understood. The Capital Hotel has widely been recognized for its value and excellence in various regional and national publications. A stay here is an experience in luxury, with an almost frighteningly attentive staff and an eye for detail that is unparalleled. One Eleven at the Capital is the city’s best fine dining establishment, with chef Joel Antunes putting his classical French training to work for diners and hotel guests alike. And Capital Bar and Grill presents the hotel’s Southern charms in a more relaxed, informal way. You could put The Capital in any city in the world and it would instantly be one of the best in that town.
Deluca’s Pizzeria – I’m sorry if it sounds like we’re beating a dead horse with this one, but it is still amazing to me that this pizzeria exists in Arkansas. Really, we’re all lucky Anthony Valinoti ended up leaving New York and putting down roots in Hot Springs. His devotion to fresh, premium ingredients is admirable, but it’s his technique with the dough that is otherworldly. When he’s finished, it’s that final millimeter of crust that is oh-so-crisp giving way into a pillow-light bite that sets Deluca’s apart from anybody. Yes, I said anybody. I’ve still yet to taste a better pizza in my lifetime.
Flyway Brewing – Flyway’s calling card is playing the classics better than anyone else. Not even two years old, Flyway had some consistency issues when it first opened, with brews that didn’t hit their mark as well as they would like. That’s all gone now; I haven’t had a new brew from Flyway in more than a year that was a misfire. Indeed, the brewery faithfully churns out traditional beer styles that are so well made it seems like Flyway has been around forever. It doesn’t hurt that Flyway also has the most in-demand beer in the state in Bluewing, a berry wheat ale that exemplifies how to make a fruited beer. Oh, and the food menu is stellar, with pretzels, sausages and nachos that are ideal for the taproom setting. Flyway is deserving of every praise it receives.
kBird – It always surprises out-of-towners to find out Little Rock is home to extraordinary Thai food. That it’s made in a hidden spot in Hillcrest only adds to kBird’s mystique. After you walk in past the diners at mismatched tables, pick your dish off a dry-erase board and get your water in a Mason jar, you’ll probably be wondering why in the world you came. Oh, but that first bite will set you straight! Whether it’s the rich red curry, the spicy-and-sour papaya salad or the classic pad Thai, kBird owner Richard Glasgow just flat out does it right. I’m serious when I say kBird is one of the five best restaurants in Central Arkansas. It is worth seeking out immediately.
Lost Forty Brewing – Some beer lovers dismiss Lost Forty for their flagship beers, but those people are missing the point. Yes, the Love Honey Bock and Bare Bones Pilsner keep the lights on, but they serve to let Lost Forty’s massively talented brew team put their best work forward. Seriously, how many breweries do you know that have put out a barrel-aged milk stout sour, and pulled it off? Get past the everyday offerings, and Lost Forty has plenty of brilliance to offer up. The Look-See Hefeweizen, the Snake Party IPA, the intricate and decadent Nighty Night, all sensational brews that just about any brewery would be proud to have on tap. Lost Forty is the kind of place you can take a casual beer fan or a hardcore hop-head and know that everyone will have a good time.
Maddie’s Place – A friend of mine last week asked me what to get for her first visit to Maddie’s. I told her to pick what looks good, because it will be good. Chef Brian Deloney simply understands Cajun and Creole flavors better than anyone around town, and it shows up in every plate the kitchen puts out. Ask 20 people their favorite dish at Maddie’s Place, you’re likely to get 20 different answers (and all of them are probably correct). Maddie’s would not be out of place in the middle of New Orleans. It is a progressive take on Louisiana fare that Little Rock should not take for granted.
Mylo Coffee Co. – Mylo is one of those places that is a sum of its parts. It wouldn’t make the list just for its excellent lattes. It wouldn’t make it here because of its painstakingly made pourovers. It wouldn’t be here if it only served up its perfect pastries. No, Mylo is here because it does all those things exceptionally well. One of my favorite things to do when I travel out of town is visit the city’s coffee shops. I’ve yet to find one as good as Mylo. The team’s work ethic and attention to detail makes Mylo one of the best food destinations in the city.
Rebel Kettle Brewing Company – If Flyway is the spot for fantastic traditional brews, and Lost Forty is the place that makes everyone happy, then Rebel Kettle is the spot that is for beer lovers. Never afraid to push the envelope, Rebel Kettle has come up with some of the most forward-thinking brews we’ve seen in Central Arkansas. Summer Jam raspberry sour, the C Street IPA series, a bourbon barrel-aged coffee and coconut stout, and so many others all show off the remarkable talent and big ideas behind Rebel Kettle’s success. Have a friend who loves craft beer? You absolutely must take them to Rebel Kettle.
Rock Town Distillery – There are still some people in Central Arkansas who tried Rock Town when it first opened and haven’t gone back. These people don’t know what they are missing. Rock Town has quietly risen to become one of the top distilleries in the country. Yes, in the country. Very few distilleries can boast the awards and accolades Rock Town continues to receive. And while its vodka, gin and moonshine are good, it’s Rock Town’s whiskies that are superb, garnering recognition from writers and publications around the world. I’m not joking at all when I say that Rock Town could be in the heart of Kentucky and still be impressing people. Pick up a bottle at your liquor store, or better still, pay a visit to the distillery for a taste of some of the best spirits you can find.
South on Main – Little Rock is a Southern city, and there’s no better representation of Southern food in the city than South on Main. Chef Matthew Bell has done his homework, bringing to his menu recipes that some have never heard of, like the Chicken Bog from South Carolina, or the Yock Box from Virginia. These are the culinary forms of our very Southern heritage, and at South on Main, they are cared for and lovingly preserved and given new life. South on Main is as much a food museum as it is a restaurant. It’s not just one of the best restaurants in Central Arkansas. It’s one of the most vital.
The Southern Gourmasian – It’s a clear and consistent vision that has guided Gourmasian to becoming one of Central Arkansas’ best restaurants. Its very name is a purposeful direction that makes sense with every bite. Fusion restaurants have come and gone over the years (or decades), but very few have ever made their theme a mantra quite like The Southern Gourmasian. It informs every dish, from the steamed buns stuffed with pulled pork to the chicken and dumplings made with a sweet-and-spicy glaze and rice dumplings. A friend who moved out of town once told me he could find replacements for nearly all his favorite restaurants, but nothing compared with The Southern Gourmasian. It is a unique treat.
Table 28 – In truth, Table 28’s greatness comes squarely down to chef Scott Rains’ ability to create and execute. The dishes he comes up with seem out of left field (Foie gras biscuits and gravy? Quail lollipops? Calamari schnitzel?), but it’s Rains’ sheer willpower and talent that molds these plates into something special. This is inventive cuisine that wouldn’t be out of place in Chicago or San Francisco, and yet it’s all devised by a Hot Springs boy-at-heart who might just as soon be fishing. It is an absolutely special place, one that you should experience right away if you haven’t already.