Fans of Little Rock favorite Cheers Restaurant will be delighted by what its owner has on tap for the capitol city’s Main Street.
Photography by Ashlee Nobel
[dropcap]The[/dropcap] revitalization plan for downtown Little Rock’s Main Street is well underway. New construction and renovations as well as the newest additions — rain gardens and permeable paving — add to the walkability factor. And just in time, as the historic Mann Building has gained a new resident: Samantha’s Tap Room and Wood Grill.
The restaurant is owned by The Gordo Brothers, a partnership of Cheers owner Chris Tanner, Kevin Case, Jason Polk and Nick Lawrence. Tanner said their partnership grew out of friendship. “I’ve known them all for years, two of them for more than 20 years and one for five. We, and our wives, all went on vacation to Mexico and had so much fun. While there, we talked about the restaurant. Things took off from there.”
Tanner purchased Cheers, located in the Heights neighborhood of Little Rock, 14 years ago. At that time, he said, the business was a struggling sandwich joint. He changed and expanded the menu, and the rest is history. Cheers has a solid customer base for which Tanner is thankful.
“It’s a great cozy, little place,” he said. “I thank God. We’ve grown every year, except 2008 when everybody was down. Cheers is a fun neighborhood joint where everybody knows everybody.”
Tanner built upon that success with a second location in Maumelle, Ark., that he established from the ground up. He sold that location about 18 months ago.
He’s had the idea for Samantha’s Tap Room and Wood Grill in mind for a while. Tanner has catered parties and other gatherings for 18 years, and many of the menu items at Samantha’s are popular dishes from that business.
“I love food. I love a good drink and hospitality, and I’ve always thought about opening another restaurant,” Tanner said. He chose downtown and the Mann Building for this venture because of the building’s history. “I love this space, the ceilings and it’s right on the corner. There’s so much coming to Main Street and downtown Little Rock. We’re experiencing what so many cities have already experienced. He said, pointing to the street, “What’s happening here, thus far, is just the tip of the iceberg.”
Tanner named the restaurant after his wife Samantha. He said, smiling, “Well, I love that name. It’s kind of inviting.”
Opening the business, Tanner said, has been easier with partners, and while the partners want to make a profit, they all have other business interests so they’re not counting on it as their sole income.
“Our goal is to retire our debt first and go from there,” he said.
If the crowd that gathered on the evening we spoke with him is an indication, they’ll have no problem doing so. We visited on a Friday evening the week before the grand opening. The owners spontaneously decided to open the doors and announced their intention via social media. By 4:30 p.m., a nice crowd had gathered, and patrons enviously eyed our food samples.
The menu concept is à la carte — you build your meal, as you desire. There are salads, communal items, sandwiches and entrees, sides and desserts. Chef Jason Morell — a sight for sore eyes, as I’ve mourned the loss of the recently closed Starving Artist and its salad niçoise — is in command of the kitchen. Only two items are fried: the house-made pork skins and chips. All other items are roasted or grilled. Tanner said they’ll offer specials and “if something sticks, we’ll add it to the menu.”
We began our first Samantha’s experience — we will return — with grilled shishito peppers. Dressed with olive oil and sea salt, the East Asian peppers pack a big punch and will, we predict, be a favorite for those who like items with a lot of spice. Slices of grilled baguette topped with Parmesan salsa were delicious; the salsa was an unexpected treat with just the right amount of garlic.
Samantha’s Greek salad was comprised of crisp romaine, artichoke hearts, feta cheese and kalamata olives. It was pretty and pretty tasty — just what I’d expect from Morell. To this lovely fresh offering, as well as five other salads, patrons can add a choice of proteins: grilled chicken, salmon, steak or shrimp. They also offer a sixth salad, the chopped salmon, with couscous, dried cranberries and more, topped with a pesto buttermilk dressing.
The menu includes sandwiches and folds, such as the Cuban, skirt steak and grouper fish tacos, and more. From this menu, we sampled the double-stack cheeseburger. It was juicy, filling and yummy.
Everything was flavorful and appetizing, but two items made us wish for more room in our stomachs: the Chilean sea bass served with a side of New Orleans dirty rice and their Leige waffle. The sea bass was, in a word, clean. Grilled to the perfect consistency and texture, its purity was played upon by a chimichurri sauce — made of cilantro, jalapeño and other ingredients, it’s often served with beef — which added just the right amount of complexity to the fish.
And the waffle … the Leige waffle is a truly rich, decadent and addictive indulgence. If you like chocolate, trust me: You. Will. Love. This.
Samantha’s is also a taproom; patrons can enjoy 32 beers and 20 wines, all on tap. Whether it’s locally brewed ale, like Lost 40 Honey Rock or Springdale-originated Core Leg Hound Lager, or national brands such as Stella Artois, you’ll be pleased. Red and white wines are available, again on tap or by half and whole bottles. Champagne and sparking wines are offered too.
The bar serves a variety of well drinks prepared with vodka, bourbon, rum, tequila and more. Speaking of tequila, for just $10 you can enjoy a freshly squeezed margarita, screwdriver or greyhound.
The interior of Samantha’s Tap Room and Wood Grill is inviting. Decorated with a rustic, contemporary design aesthetic, the atmosphere is relaxed and ideal for lunch and happy hour. Mesquite woodpiles line two of the walls, and reclaimed wood was used to build the tables and hostess stand. The chairs were fabricated out of recycled Coke bottles and based on a design used for naval chairs.
“Our goal was to create a relaxed feel. Nothing Hollywood or overdone. Just organic,” Tanner said. “We don’t want to reinvent the wheel. I like things simple — we’re serving items with good flavor, consistently.”
To that we say: Cheers to a job well done.
SAMANTHA’S TAP ROOM AND WOOD GRILL
322 Main St. / Little Rock, AR 72201
(501) 379-8019 / samstap.com
11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Mon. through Wed.
11 a.m. to midnight, Thu. and Fri.
Sat., 4 p.m. to midnight
Bar menu served after 10 p.m.