Story by Mel White | Photography by Jamison Mosley
And here are some Arkansas wine bars we think you’ll like.
I’m sure it says something about my wife and me — although I’m not sure exactly what — that so many of our favorite vacation memories involve bars.
But why shouldn’t that be? A bar can be a welcome haven, cool in the tropics, warm in a northern winter — a place to relax after a day of slogging through museums and parks, to recharge, reminisce and make plans. You meet people in bars; conversation finds you. In rural Ireland, for instance, an American can hardly get out a complete sentence before a local asks, “Whereabouts in the U.S. might you be from?” because everybody in Ireland has relatives who emigrated, and you just might know them.
We remember the oh-so-fancy cocktail bar in Barcelona where the waiters wore white jackets and the gin and tonics cost $15 and were worth every penny. And down the Spanish coast in Sitges, the beach bar that popped up after dark with umbrellas in the sand and candles on the tables, where we watched a barefoot woman in a black dress surf-casting at midnight while her son and daughter played with their dog. And the “hotel” (as the Aussies call pubs) in a little Queensland town where we had Bundaberg rum to celebrate seeing a rare bird. And the Decatur Street dive bar in New Orleans where… well, let’s draw the curtain on that one.
In cities, we mostly look for wine bars because we like wine, for one thing and because wine bars tend to be quieter and more relaxing than booze-and-beer bars. We’ve had some nicely serendipitous moments in wine bars, too.
In Paris — you know, that city where people are notoriously rude and impatient — we dropped into a café around the corner from Place Saint-Michel because we were jet-lagged and because the dark wood exterior looked so inviting. It’s a little intimidating for many of us Americans to order wine in France because they label wines by place of origin rather than grape varietal. We sat there, looking at a list of names like Haut-Médoc, Pauillac and Saint Emilion, unsure of what we’d like. The waiter appeared, speaking English, and when we confessed our ignorance he quickly brought glasses and bottles. He poured several free samples and then brought more glasses and bottles and more again. By the time we left, we knew a couple of names we could look for during the rest of our trip.
One evening in Barcelona’s Born neighborhood, we lucked into a second-floor table by an open window in a venerable wine bar called La Vinya del Senyor, where we sat and drank and were entertained by a wedding party leaving the 14th-century Santa Maria del Mar basilica across the plaza. Moments like that are the reason to travel, it seems to me.
When you consider wine in Arkansas, thoughts turn to the long-established institutions around Altus. We have several wine bars, though, and the list grows each year. Here are the ones we found, and a few comments about each. We’re not listing bars that are primarily adjuncts to restaurants — despite the fact that many are truly serious about wine and have wider bottle selections that rival most wine bars (e.g., Arthur’s Prime Steakhouse in Little Rock and Bordinos in Fayetteville). Peruse the list, and à votre santé.
ZIN URBAN WINE & BEER BAR
300 River Market Avenue, Little Rock
ZIN’s original location is part of Little Rock’s River Market District, which has succeeded in creating a true downtown destination for eating, drinking, music and shopping.
Subdued lighting, a sofa and easy chairs, tables and stools at ZIN host a mix of customers, from loyal neighborhood regulars to out-of-town guests at some of the many, many hotels that have sprung up within a few blocks in recent years. (If you were staying at some downtown hotel away from home, ZIN is just the kind of refuge you’d like to find on the next block.)
ZIN’s appetizer menu is pretty substantial, with chicken and artichoke dip and panini sliders in addition to the usual meat, cheese and bread selection and more. ZIN offers six flights of whites and reds for those in the mood to sample something new without committing to a full glass. And every Wednesday evening there’s a wine-tasting event, including free snacks at a special price.
318 Main Street, N. Little Rock
This cozy storefront on North Little Rock’s Main Street was founded in 2007 in downtown Little Rock. Four years later, Crush moved across the river to its present location in Argenta, becoming part of the burgeoning neighborhood between Verizon Arena and Dickey-Stephens Park.
Of all the wine bars listed here, Crush feels most like the kind of place you’d find on a side street in a European city, with its old-fashioned metal ceiling, white tablecloths and abstract art and wine boxes on the walls. A small patio in the back offers a place to enjoy nice weather. As an added attraction, the downtown streetcar route runs along Main Street, making it easy to park elsewhere and hop off right in front.
The Crush staff is unfailingly helpful and knowledgeable about the wines on the menu and the happy-hour specials. Food includes meat, cheese and bread plates and bruschetta. Yes, there’s a television in the corner. But one recent night instead of playing the ubiquitous sports, it was tuned to old episodes of “Star Trek” with the sound off, so as not to interfere with the smooth jazz on the speakers.
323 S. Cross St., Little Rock
This welcome addition to the downtown Little Rock drinking-and-dining scene brings several interesting historical aspects to the table. “Gastronomist” Margie Raimondo grew up with a Sicilian heritage of wine and food but detoured into the California world of software as her day job. Having moved to Arkansas, she’s taken over the equipment of a defunct cheese-making business located on Cross Street, and since September she has operated a “boards and bites eatery” in the intimate bar and dining room.
The wine selection features Raimondo family blends from Lodi, California, as well as offerings from the West Coast, Italy, France and other countries. Local beers are also available. The small-plates menu is quite substantial, with house-made cheeses and preserves, charcuterie plates, bruschetta varieties, soups and sweets.
The atmosphere here is nothing if not welcoming, informal enough for a quick visit for a glass and a snack, but with white tablecloths in the dining area to make a more substantial meal feel special.
BY THE GLASS
5713 Kavanaugh Boulevard, Little Rock
By The Glass sits smack in the middle of the liveliest section of Kavanaugh in Little Rock’s upscale Heights neighborhood, where its neighbors include popular spots such as Heights Taco & Tamale, ZAZA, Boulevard Bread and U.S. Pizza — not to mention art galleries, fancy boutiques and day spas. Yes, it can be hard to find a parking spot among all the Lexuses, Bimmers, Range Rovers and Benzes on Kavanaugh.
Once you’re inside, though, you’ll find BTG just as lively as its neighborhood — at times full (or nearly so) of friends meeting for drinks and snacks, with conversation filling the atmosphere. Check the wine list on the big blackboard on the west wall, and sample food such as bread (from Boulevard) and olive oil or tapenade, various cheeses, sausages, fruits and nuts.
Seating ranges from upholstered chairs at tall tables to benches against the wall to a few large easy chairs for lounging and, maybe, checking email with the free Wi-Fi. BTG also hosts the occasional meet-and-greet with a visiting winemaker.
ARGENTINIAN COFFEE & WINE BAR
328 Central Avenue, Hot Springs
If you’re looking for a spot for a romantic tête-à-tête, this isn’t the place. Argentinian Coffee & Wine Bar, which opened in 2017, occupies a storefront on Central Avenue in Hot Springs, midway between the Gangster Museum and Josephine Tussaud Wax Museum. Inside, the small bar shares space with a Thai massage studio/spa and an oxygen bar. With all the aromas in the air, there’s no way to appreciate the nose of your glass, and the ambience is much more coffee shop than wine bar.
The wine list reflects the owners’ Argentine heritage, heavy on Malbec and other Argentine wines, with a couple from Chile and Spain for variety. You can also order Argentine coffee, as well as beer, soft drinks and various teas. The staff is helpful, and you can sit at a table by the front window and watch the crowds stroll by on Central — always one of the most entertaining ways to spend time in Hot Springs.
CORK AND KEG
509 W Spring, Fayetteville
Under a different name, this location was exclusively a wine bar a few years ago. Nowadays it’s diversified and is, in the owner’s words, “a kind of neighborhood bar.” Does it rate as a wine bar? Maybe some would quibble, but there’s no question it’s a wonderful place to relax and chat, and there’s a far more serious wine list than at most bars. (C&K describes its staff as “Fayetteville’s biggest wine and cocktail nerds.”)
“We’re not a Dickson Street bar,” a staff member said, and thank goodness for that. There’s a place for loud, frenetic music bars. But there’s also a place, a block south, for a more relaxed spot where you can sit at the bar, grab a table by a window or commandeer one of the easy chairs in the back and have a conversation. “Limited pub snacks” include free popcorn and complimentary crackers. There’s live music at times on the small stage.
Cork and Keg has a devoted following of fans, both locals and out-of-towners. Drop in sometime and you might become one, too.
THE STONE HOUSE
89 S. Main, Eureka Springs
The wonderfully quirky burg of Eureka Springs has more fascinating architectural highlights than you can count. One of them is the estimable Stone House, a popular wine bar that sits near the southern end of Eureka’s Main Street downtown area. It opened in 2010 after extensive renovation of a 19th-century structure, set against one of the rock bluffs that contribute to the town’s character.
The Stone House is dark and intimate, with several different rooms to choose from on two floors. It also boasts a large patio that would be nearly perfect in good weather—except for the blatting motorcycles parading on adjacent Main Street. Much nicer sounds come from the excellent musicians who often perform here.
“Hearty” hardly begins to describe the appetizer plates at the Stone House; some of them can constitute a meal for two people, with trays loaded with meat, cheese, bread and fruit. Wine flights and pairings of wine and cheese are always featured on the menu. The Stone House truly merits the praise and loyalty it’s earned from both locals and tourists in Eureka Springs.
RAMO D’OLIVO OLIVE OIL, VINEGAR & WINE BAR
217 S. Main, Bentonville
Enter this storefront a couple of blocks south of the Bentonville square and prepare to be pleasantly surprised. Walk past the displays of olive oil and vinegar, and you’ll find a welcoming wine (and beer) bar with subdued colors, high and low tables and an expansive outdoor patio. You can also sit at the bar if you’re solo and feel like a chat with the staff.
Open since 2015, Ramo d’Olivo (“olive branch” in Italian) serves wines from Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Chile, Australia, California, Oregon and Washington — a wider selection than those of most similar bars. The snack menu includes Italian meats, cheese, bread, fruit, nuts and, of course, olive oil.
Glasses of wine are a dollar off on Wednesdays. Ramo d’Olivo offers flights of wine for sampling, and one recent evening, the choices were more personalized than usual: Each was a particular favorite of a staff member.
ZIN WINE BAR WEST
11121 N. Rodney Parham Road, Little Rock
In 2017, ZIN opened a second location in a shopping center just west of I-430. And although the address is Rodney Parham, the storefront really faces Market Street. The lighting, decor and wine and food menus are similar to the downtown location, but this spot is substantially larger. The ZINsday (Wednesday) wine tasting is also offered here.
The larger space in its western location allows ZIN to include a meeting and party room, as well as occasional live music and premium tasting events.
SASSAFRAS SPRINGS VINEYARD
6461 E. Guy Terry Road, Springdale
In the country, about three miles east of Lake Fayetteville, the setting for Sassafras Springs was farmland not too long ago. There are still a few cows around, hemmed in by mini-estates with mini-mansions.
In part a venue for weddings and similar events, Sassafras Springs also offers a wine bar in a converted dairy barn, where you can sample its wines as well as select varieties from elsewhere. While its owners wait for Sassafras Springs’ own vines to mature and begin producing, they are importing bulk grapes from Washington and elsewhere and pressing, fermenting and bottling wine under their own label. The Syrah recently won an award in an international competition.
The wine bar offers snacks and a dinner menu on weekends, with regular live music. One of its major attractions is a cascading series of large outdoor decks, excellent for relaxing and imbibing in good weather.