North Little Rock’s food and culture lift it out of the shadow of its neighbor south of the river.
Photography by Sara Edwards Neal
[pullquote]Above Photo: The private viewing area at Greg Thompson Fine Art offers visitors a quiet place to spend time with a piece of work – in this case, “Relic” (third painting from the right) by Edward Rice.[/pullquote] [dropcap]Once[/dropcap] upon a couple decades ago, it was possible to spend your entire life in Little Rock, Ark., and not know or care much about what went on across the river. Sure, you might occasionally trek to Verizon Arena — it was Alltel Arena then — and you might have fond memories of the long-closed Farrell’s ice cream parlor at McCain Mall, but you never got the feeling you were missing much by staying on the south side.
That, I’m happy to say, is no longer the case. The Argenta Arts District in downtown North Little Rock is one of the best places in the state to indulge your cultural urge and eat a great meal to boot, and the historic Park Hill neighborhood is home to its own stretch of quaint shops, not to mention some truly unique architecture.
Sara Neal, AY’s art director, and I started our day with breakfast at Mugs Café, which has become an anchor in the Argenta neighborhood. Michael Carpenter and his wife, Amanda, opened it two years ago. They originally rented the space as a meeting place for a new church, and later decided to open a coffee shop as well so it wouldn’t sit empty the rest of the week. What they’ve created is a bright, welcoming space, with large communal tables designed to encourage mixing and mingling. “We wanted a place where you can eat and drink without the expectation to consume and move on,” Michael Carpenter said.
Even on our Monday morning visit, Mugs was busy, but on Saturdays expect it to be packed with diners enjoying the all-you-can-eat pancake special before they hit the Argenta Farmers Market across the street. We thought about ordering the breakfast tacos, which are made with chorizo sausage, but instead indulged in an order of French toast – cooked traditionally, and served with fresh strawberries – along with a large cranberry orange muffin and, of course, a latte. While Sara photographed the food, I took in the scenery: walls covered with works by local artists. The collection changes every other month, Carpenter said. Mugs is open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
After breakfast, we set out to explore the rest of Argenta, which is anchored by a 5-block stretch of Main Street lined with century-old buildings. The neighborhood’s boosters have consciously set out to attract arts-related businesses, and one of the first to come was Greg Thompson Fine Art. Here you’ll find works from some of the South’s best-known and most interesting artists, including Donald Roller Wilson and Carroll Cloar. This summer’s exhibit features southern magic realism. The gallery is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday.
Argenta is home to several other galleries, as well as the Art Connection, located a couple of blocks east of Main on Fourth Street. Art Connection, which is affiliated with the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub, hires high school students to work as artists. They’re mentored by professional artists, learning how to conduct meetings with potential clients and honing their techniques while also earning money and participating in the community. The center’s gallery space showcases works for sale; half the purchase price goes to the artist, and the other half supports Art Connection’s programs.
“It’s about so much more than art,” Hollie Lewis, the program’s executive director, said. “We’re able to provide them with life skills — the soft skills they need.”
Art Connection’s gallery is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays; if the front door is locked, just knock.
If performing arts are more your speed, check out Argenta Community Theater and The Joint Theater and Coffeehouse, which offer a wide variety of plays, musicals, concerts and other live entertainment.
If you’re in the mood to shop, don’t miss Galaxy Furniture. You could easily spend an hour perusing both the vintage furniture upstairs and the booths downstairs offering locally made jewelry, birdhouses made from recycled materials, vintage clothing, home décor, used books, vinyl records, and anything else that’s caught the fancy of either store owner Wayne Hogan or the vendors who rent booth space. “Our buzzwords are funky, retro and vintage,” Hogan said.
If you’re ready for lunch at this point, head down to Cregeen’s, an Irish pub with a full menu, or to Reno’s Argenta Café, one of the first restaurants to open when Argenta’s renewal began more than a decade ago.
We were up for a bit more exploring, so we headed north to Park Hill, the city’s original suburb. Development began in the 1920s, and its historic homes feature some of the most interesting architecture in the state. Shops line JFK Boulevard between I-40 and McCain Boulevard, including neighborhood institution Wicks and Wax. As its name suggests, this gift shop carries candles — lots and lots of candles — but that’s only the beginning. If you’re a Christmas-in-July type, head to the second floor and lose yourself in the year-round display of holiday ornaments and décor. The shop’s top sellers are the Pandora and Lampe Berger, but you’ll also find baby gifts, collectible figurines, picture frames, and all manner of home décor accessories – plus gourmet coffee.
“I just go to market and what I see that I like, I figure someone else would like it, too,” owner Dorothy Ann Armbrust said. Wicks and Wax is open from 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Tuesday through Friday, and from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday.
For gifts of a different sort, you can head across JFK Boulevard to Stanley Jewelers/Gemologists, another neighborhood institution, or to Angry Dave’s bicycle shop, a fairly new addition. A little farther up JFK you’ll find the Red Door Gallery, which offers custom framing in addition to original art, and Sage Boutique, where owner Lynn Espejo has curated an interesting selection of fashion-forward but affordable clothing and accessories. If you’re hungry, stop by Ira’s Park Hill Grill. This local eatery is quaint, the food tasty and they have a full bar.
After shopping our way up JFK, we made a right on McCain and headed to the Garden Bistro, located on the ground floor of the Lakewood House building at 4801 North Hills Boulevard. Chef Eric Greer bought the former Victorian Garden restaurant a little over a year ago, after moving back to Arkansas from a stint in Las Vegas. Greer graduated from Le Cordon Bleu and honed his craft with celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck. He’s put that expertise to use by cooking simple but delicious fare. We sampled a number of items from the breakfast and lunch menus, including a delectable eggs Benedict, a fresh and crunchy curry chicken wrap, and a Chinese chicken salad with a ginger dressing I loved so much I bought some. Greer also makes about 20 varieties of gourmet hummus, which you can order at the restaurant or buy at local farmers markets. The Garden Bistro is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and it recently added dinner hours beginning at 5 p.m. Wednesday through Friday.
Refueled, we headed south on North Hills Boulevard to Plantopia, a sprawling new nursery owned by Chris Olsen of “Today’s Home” fame. Plantopia is a lovely place to lose yourself in lushness for a while, with greenhouses devoted to all manner of common and exotic plants, trees and shrubs. Olsen also sells his Jhemajang line of colorful indoor/outdoor furniture and accessories.
“‘Jhemajang’ is the art of mixing up different styles to form one look,” he said. Olsen, who also owns Botanica Garden, said the goal for Plantopia is to offer a wide variety of plants and bulk materials at prices that are competitive even with big-box stores.
What better way to round out your afternoon than with happy hour? For that, we headed back to Argenta, where Ristorante Capeo serves up unique cocktails, a good variety of wines and a full and creative Italian menu. We started with the not-as-weird-as-it-sounds Coco Bella, made with coconut balsamic vinegar (yes, that exists) and spumante. It’s a light, bubbly little confection that won’t leave you nodding off into your appetizer.
Speaking of food, we also ate our way through the Hunter, a plate of meats and olives, as well as a wonderfully rich pasta dish made with bacon and a Gorgonzola cream sauce in addition to a salad topped with duck breast.
Owner and chef Eric Isaac caught us up on plans to add a small pizzeria in a space at the back of the restaurant. It will feature a wood-burning oven, seating for 16, and will be open for lunch with a menu of Neapolitan-style pizza, salads and pastas. Look for it to open sometime this summer. Until then, Capeo’s hours are from 5 to 10 p.m., Monday through Saturday.
Stuffed and sated, we declared our excursion “fini” and headed home.