I Love This Bar: Beer and Bar Food Bucket List
Midtown Billiards has been called many things in its mind-bending 81-year history — a dive, a joint, a tavern, an all-nighter and a few compliments not for print word-for-word. But mostly, it’s been Little Rock’s favorite late-night address, a fixture in the South Main neighborhood that time, tastes and even a 2016 grease fire could not silence.
You might not know to look at it — and owner David Shipp recoils at the term — but the maverick spot is a drinking and dining institution, a trailblazer more than trendsetter, putting as much attention into food as drink, even at 4 o’clock in the morning.
“As for being considered a ‘pioneer,’ I would just say, it’s something you can’t get too wrapped up into,” Shipp says. “An ego is something that kills you in any business; once you start to feel like you’re so big that the world needs to listen to what you have to say for reasons X, Y and Z, that’s ego. It comes in and starts to tear you down, starts to make you a person who loses touch with what’s happening in the world.
“When people say, ‘We were told you have the best burger in town,’ I’ll tell them, ‘Well, yes, we have a very good burger here.’ I shy away from saying we have ‘the best,’ because that’s subjective, and it’s kind of hard to build up something and then hope that their expectations will meet what the PR has been built up about it. So, I try to stay humble, and I try to stay in the now, and I try to stay real.”
That said, Midtown Billiards makes one of, if not the best burger in town. And not just because it is always fresh, or always inventive (you like SPAM on yours, you just don’t know it until you come here). It’s because the burger or the brats or any of the other great pub fare and the bar are one and the same — inseparable and more than the sum of their parts. All the best bar food is.
“Well, there’s no point in reinventing the wheel,” Shipp says, citing the Gospel of Maggie Hinson, his mother, who bought the place in the 1990s. “There’s no reason to overthink the process. Like most establishments that have good food, it always starts with fresh ingredients that are prepped fresh daily. We don’t import anything that’s frozen. We just try to stay as consistent with it as possible, keeping it as simple as we can.”
Anyone who knows will tell you Midtown Billiards is one of the most influential spots anywhere in the Little Rock bar scene for serving excellent food to patrons on the principle of the thing. As, still, one of the few all-night joints in the city, its sober-up staples would be consumed regardless of quality in many cases. But Hinson regarded her motley patrons — be they ending a night of unhinged revelry or quietly clocking out of third shift — as family, so no deep-fried mess was good enough.
“Clientele always shapes what you’re going to offer,” Shipp says. “And we do offer food and services to a lot of people who are getting off that late shift. We have a lot of burgers with egg or bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches or SPAM, egg and cheese — anything with an egg on it is going to do well. Sometimes we just sell egg sandwiches, and I think that is something that’s a good addition to the menu — it’s simple, it’s easy and it satisfies. People really enjoy a good egg on their sandwiches.”
Blessedly, there are many other bars now that follow this same principle of knowing one’s customer and cooking for them. Few stay open until 5 a.m., and fewer still have the miles on them Midtown does, but all are driven by a done-right ethos, bringing dish, people and environment into balance.
A come-lately disciple of this formula is North Bar in the Park Hill neighborhood in North Little Rock, a bright space that blurs the line between watering hole and gourmet diner.
“We see ourselves as a bar that serves really good food,” says Snee Dismang, who owns the place with her husband, Kyle. “When we opened, Park Hill hadn’t had liquor in 50 years. So, we knew we wanted to do a bar there, but the main focus would be the burgers.”
That alone might not have necessarily set North Bar into the class of destination dining, but other dishes — things like the fried Brussels sprouts appetizer, salad topped with salmon filet or a sweet and sour chicken sandwich — certainly do.
“Plenty of people are pleasantly surprised by our food. I think that’s what put us on the map,” Dismang says. “I think seasoning is big; I’m Indian, so seasoning is a huge thing for us.”
The bar’s bestseller of late is the fried pickle burger, but the range of North Bar’s kitchen offers a little something for everyone.
“My favorite is the el Diablo that I veganize by adding vegan sauce and cheese; the buns are already vegan from our supplier,” Dismang says. “Also, I like to do the Asian chicken salad, but I put a white bean patty on top instead of the chicken.
“If you want to do something different that isn’t on the page, we can do that. Sometimes when I go out, I want to modify things, and I’ll get crazy looks. We didn’t want that environment. If a customer wants something a certain way, we don’t turn our nose up. We want to make you happy and take care of you.”
The challenge was different for Lost Forty Brewing and its taproom restaurant, which opened in 2014. The food pedigree of ownership — which included acclaimed Little Rock chef Scott McGehee — was unquestioned, and the beer side was anchored by some of the best brewers money could buy.
Still, says fellow owner John Beachboard, a successful melding of the two was far from assured.
“At the end of the day, it’s a pretty simple equation, but sometimes those are the hardest. There’s good food and good service and good beer; that’s essentially our recipe for success,” he says. “You can’t have a perfect experience with any one of those elements missing. For that reason, we originally weren’t going to do a restaurant at the brewery.
“I think about getting all those things together, great food, beer and friends. That’s a recipe for a memorable experience, and that’s how you can create true believers. I’m not the greatest salesperson and don’t have the most bubbly personality, but give me some beer and wings and I can make new friends.”
Where other bars’ quality of food is a revelation, for Lost Forty, excellent fare was an expectation from the get-go. Recognizing this, the crew goes to extraordinary — some might say obsessive — lengths to live up to its reputation.
“The restaurant business is in our blood,” Beachboard says. “Take the wings for instance; right now, anybody can take a wing and throw it in a fryer and put some fatty, sugary barbecue sauce on it, and it’ll probably be pretty delicious. What we do is come in at 6 a.m., fire up our wood smoker, lay out hundreds of individual wings, smoke them for a few hours, then fry them to order and toss in the in-house-made sauces.
“The answer to why we do that? I guess the real answer is: We want to do it. We not only have to make customers happy, but it’s in our blood to make our souls happy, to be honest with ourselves. ‘Is this something we are satisfied with?’”
For all of the extra work that goes into it, the magic of Lost Forty is everything on the menu is familiar, even as it’s prepared to the highest standards. Nothing among the burgers, sandwiches and other beer hall delights scream pretension, and that attitude carries over to the brewery operations. Lost Forty’s brews win awards, but they don’t taste like cotton candy goat hair just because one of the brewers thinks he can do it.
“The word we’ve used since day one among our brew staff is ‘balanced,’” Beachboard says. “We do try to get out there and get crazy but we ask, ‘Is it balanced?’ Balance is a word related to not just the palate but to the mind, too.
“There are a lot of breweries making beers that are not even made to be consumed. I feel like they’re just made to be sold on the secondhand market. I understand collecting things — I collect vinyl records — but not collecting beer. I like drinking beer.”
Atmosphere means a lot in the restaurant business and as a category, perhaps most of all with bars. From the sunny family environ of North Bar to the Munich beer hall vibe of Lost Forty to the hundreds of moments memorialized on Midtown Billiards’ graffiti murals, the place matters as much as the fare, the people around you as essential as the plate and pint in front of you.
Bubba Bass knows this well, as evidenced by the breathtaking Bubba Brew’s on Lake Hamilton. It’s hard to imagine a better setting for a night of noshing on the place’s diabolical burgers and washing them down with one of the home suds shipped in from the brewery in nearby Bonnerdale. It’s a massive, hulking structure staring out over the shimmering lake, yet still a place where, somehow, everybody knows your name.
“Well, we started out just bar food,” Bass says. “Then I thought about all the tourists in Hot Springs and the church folks who don’t drink beer but are looking for a place where they can have groups of 20 to 30 people. Most places don’t accommodate that. So, we brought in a chef, and we took it to the next level; now it’s a brewery and a place to eat.
“If you can have good food, you’ll get that clientele, and if that clientele wants beer and you do that well, you’ll be successful.”
There are a few gimmicks wrapped up in Bubba Brew’s strategy. Bar-patron-friendly cornhole courts, karaoke and trivia delight the party crowd, while massive portions satisfy on the food side. When most people head to a bar to fill up, they’re usually not talking about BBQ ribs, after all.
“People love the quality and quantity,” Bass says. “If you leave here hungry, you might have forgotten your to-go box on the table. Since COVID, we could do 64-ounce growlers to-go on Sunday, so we’ve become a destination for folks looking to grab a Sunday beer to take home, too.
“We’ve been through probably a thousand different food items, and we always do a customer feedback at the end of the year to see which ones customers like the most. We do a lot with the locals, so the locals support us — they give us feedback if something isn’t right. We go with what the customers want.”
Bubba’s take-home business is about to get much larger with the start of a canning operation, which will spread its good cheer to fans over a much wider footprint. But not unlike a hot dog at a baseball game or popcorn in a movie theater, there’s just something about a place that makes everything taste better, feel better. Few people assign ownership to a fast-food joint or chain restaurant; everybody has a bar that’s theirs.
For Bass, the feeling is mutual. After the debacle that was 2020, he’s happy to have the family together under one roof again, all 500 of them.
“When COVID hit, we took a huge loss of revenue,” he says. “We had to throw out about 1,500 gallons of beer because no one would take it, since at that time we only did kegs, and our place was closed along with everyone else. That killed us for a while.”
At this Bass pauses, yielding to the silence of the space broken only by the lapping lake water. He looks around.
“If you get good quality — and that goes for beer, food and the perfect atmosphere — all those ingredients go together to make it work.”