While Riverdale has a name that tells you where it is, sort of, the vague area referred to as Midtown — a sprawl of green space, suburb, shopping and urbana defined here as stretching roughly from Fair Park to Interstate 430 east to west and 12th Street to the Arkansas River south to north — gets its name because it’s the midpoint between somewhere and somewhere: in this case, stuck in the middle between the bright lights and commerce of downtown and the big box stores and McMansions of West Little Rock.
That doesn’t mean, however, that Midtown is nowhere. While it might not seem all that exciting as you’re zipping past the University, John Barrow and Baptist Hospital exits on I-630, there’s plenty of stuff to see, do and eat in Midtown and down Cantrell Hill in Riverdale. The intersection of Markham Street and University Avenue has seen something of a revival, with a cluster of higher-end shops in the Midtowne Shopping Center and condos and more shopping in the Park Avenue shopping center, augmenting the tried-and-true Park Plaza Mall.
If a hearty breakfast is your thing first thing in the morning, you should try another tried-and-true: the Ozark Country Restaurant (201 Keightly Drive) near the Cantrell Road and Mississippi Street intersection. It’s a slice of Americana that’s become a local favorite, with a menu featuring cathead biscuits and gravy, the porky trinity of bacon, ham and sausage, French toast and other goodies. If you’d rather go a little more international for the most important meal of the day, Casa Manana (6820 Cantrell Road) opens at 10 a.m. seven days a week, and serves traditional, stick-to-your ribs Mexican breakfast fare, including egg dishes like Huevos Divorciados (fried eggs on corn tortillas with beans and red and green salsa), Huevos Constenos (eggs on refried beans, topped with shrimp, cheese and an herb sauce) and the always popular Huevos con Chorizo.
With your tummy rumbles momentarily silenced, maybe it’s time to do a little shopping. West of the Mississippi, as Midtown residents like to say, is Drug Emporium (9112 N. Rodney Parham Road) is a go-to for me, chock-full of all manner of old-timey drug store and health food stuff, including tonics, tinctures and liniments, a great selection of current and vintage perfumes and colognes (where else are you going to get Bay Rum Cologne for the grandpa and/or ironic hipster in your life?), grandma’s-table-worthy jams and jellies, shaving mugs, soap and brushes, mustache combs and thousands of other things you’re just not going to find at your local Walgreens or CVS.
From there, if you’ve got a green thumb or a desire to try your hand at brewing, head to The Water Buffalo (106 S. Rodney Parham) for supplies and free classes on not only gardening and beer making, but also cheese making and pickling — important skills to be had both for enjoyment and/or if this whole Trump thing leads to a lengthy post-apocalypse. With knowledgeable staff on hand and a taproom in the back where you can sample their house-made suds, it’s worth a trip to browse even if you have no interest in cheese, pickles, beer or hydroponics.
If wood butchery is more your speed, head down to the Ace Hardware (2516 Cantrell Road) in Riverdale. While we don’t usually spotlight chain stores, this is an outlet with a little-known twist: a tidy selection of furniture-grade hardwoods like walnut and cherry and a sizable assortment of fine woodworking tools tucked away in the back corner.
If by then you’ve walked a heel off, you’re in luck: Cobblestone Quality Shoe Repair (800 Reservoir Road), one of the last of its ilk, can help. Harkening back to a day when shoes were something more than another disposable quantity to be tossed in a landfill the moment a sole starts flapping, it’s likely Cobblestone can fix or restore your beloved, well-worn shoes, boots or loafers at a fraction of the cost of new ones. In my experience, they’ll fix any leather shoe, regardless of brand. While you’re on Reservoir, head on up the hill to Professor Bowl (901 Towne Oaks Drive). A retro throwback to the days when bowling was a major weekend pursuit for millions of Americans, Professor Bowl also unexpectedly features one of the best selections of craft beers in Little Rock.
If you worked up your hunger bowling, head to Riverdale for The Fold Botanas & Bar (3501 Old Cantrell Road). Fast and casual, with a nice outdoor patio to enjoy when the weather is nice, The Fold features a menu full of upscale takes on traditional favorites, including tacos with your choice of locally sourced goodies inside, tortas (the famous Mexican sub-style sandwich), tamales, burritos, salads and desserts. It’s also open for brunch on Saturday and Sunday. If Latin flavor isn’t your speed, you can’t go wrong with the ever-popular Big Orange in the Midtowne Shopping Center. Burgers are the main event, for the most part, and Big Orange does them in all styles, from all-American to loaded with Havarti cheese, mushrooms and aioli. While you’re there, don’t let your fear of calories keep you from trying the sweet potato fries with mango-curry ketchup, a local favorite, or one of its big slate of rich milkshakes. Or revisit a classic and get some thinfish or Soft Shell Crab Meuniere at The Faded Rose (1619 Rebsamen Park Road).
The afternoon is for entertainment. You could dip over to Riverdale 10 Cinema (2600 Cantrell Road) for the latest arthouse or big-budget flick. Or if you’re in the mood for a little adults-only fun, hit the Little Rock location of Adam & Eve (1510 S. University Ave.), which stocks a large collection of stripper shoes, lingerie from trashy to classy, and a prodigious selection of what used to be called “adult novelties” in sizes ranging from “isn’t that cute?” to “medically impossible.”
If you’ve got kids in tow, save Adam & Eve for date night and head on over to the Little Rock Zoo. No longer the slightly threadbare facility you might remember from when you were a kid, the Zoo has been expanding and modernizing its facilities and exhibits to better showcase a collection of hundreds of rare animals from around the world. The restored “Over the Jumps” carousel that once spun in the part of War Memorial Park that is across the street from the zoo is there, too, for some old-timey thrills. For a more chill experience, try the Arkansas Yoga Collective (7801 Cantrell Road), which features a large and constantly rotating slate of classes.
By then, dusk is probably drawing down. If you want your nightlife with a side of food, head to Hibernia Irish Tavern (9700 N. Rodney Parham Road), the only Irish pub in Central Arkansas owned by a trueborn son of Ireland, transplant Gerry Ward. In addition to the unexpectedly traditional pub decor, Hibernia features traditional Irish music along with a weekly stand-up comedy open-mic night. It also has a well-stocked bar and a well-appointed menu of appetizers, burgers and authentic Irish favorites, including corned beef and cabbage, soda bread, fish and chips, bangers and mash, Irish curry, black pudding, shepherd’s pie and more. Hit its website at hiberniairishtavern.com for a full menu and event schedule.
If you can still move after eating a plate of sausage and ‘taters, dance the night away at the granddaddy of all Little Rock dance clubs, Discovery Night Club in Riverdale (1021 Jessie Road). Started by owner Norman Jones over 40 years ago as a gay club, Discovery has since welcomed an eclectic mix of patrons, gay and straight. It also has one of the precious 4 a.m. Little Rock club permits, meaning the fun doesn’t have to stop until the sun is (almost) up. Sister club Triniti next door features drag shows and a whole other place to drink and dance.