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GUEST BLOG: Eric E. Harrison

Department of Arkansas Heritage - Monday, September 17, 2018

By ERIC E. HARRISON

When I moved to Little Rock in the late 1970s, dining out mostly meant bar food, barbecue or something fried. Chinese menus consisted of egg rolls and sweet and sour chicken; Mexican food meant not even Tex-Mex, but Ark-Mex, at Browning's and Mexico Chiquito. A “bagel”? That was a good huntin' dawg.

There were a few higher-end dining experiences available — the city's cognoscenti had banded together to create and subsidize as a matter of civic pride a French restaurant — Restaurant Jacques & Suzanne — at the top of a bank building. Venerable establishments, Bruno's Little Italy and Hank's Dog House, Roosevelt Road neighbors, elevated the cuisine level a bit. Folks frequently drove down to Hot Springs to get a steak at Coy's.

The build began slowly, but the intervening four decades have brought unimaginable changes to the local foodie landscape. The election of Bill Clinton as president in 1992 was a major milestone (it put Arkansas in general and Little Rock in particular on the map for restaurant chains, but also for tourists and local foodies). So did the founding of a culinary school at Pulaski Tech. The birth of cable networks devoted exclusively to cooking and food has raised culinary consciousness for millions. And we've seen the birth of dining out as a form of popular entertainment far beyond the capacity of anybody to have predicted.

Look around now and see an explosion in not only the number but the diversity of dining establishments: Asian options include a variety of styles of Chinese, Japanese (including sushi, and 40 years ago you would not even have heard that word outside a Woody Allen movie), Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, Nepalese, Asian-fusion. There's a huge range of places serving dishes from Italy, Mexico (and South American points as far south as Venezuela and Argentina), the Mediterranean, Middle-Europe, the Middle East, the Caribbean. I've likely forgotten to mention a few.

And it's not just in the center of central Arkansas — Conway, Benton and Hot Springs have become significant foodie hubs, and the burgeoning in better-end restaurants in Bentonville is at the center of a big restaurant boom in Northwest Arkansas.
Eat up, folks. There's plenty more where that came from.

Eric E. Harrison has been writing about restaurants, first for the Arkansas Democrat and since for its successor, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, since 1978.