If you didn’t grow up in Southeast Arkansas or Mississippi, or aren’t a student of Southern culinary history, you could be forgiven for thinking that Doe’s Eat Place in Little Rock was the funky original, the formula that’s been emulated in Doe’s in Bentonville, Fayetteville, Fort Smith, Jonesboro and other spots throughout the region. It’s not. Mamie and Dominick “Doe” Signa opened the original in Greenville, Miss., years earlier in 1941. But on the strength of Little Rock Doe’s founder George Eldridge’s big personality, long restaurant career and friendship with Bill Clinton, Doe’s in Little Rock became a culinary institution of its own in the late 1980s and 1990s, perhaps even becoming the Doe’s known best round the world. Now owned and operated by Eldridge’s daughter, Katherine Eldridge, and sometimes managed by her son, Adam Edmondson, Doe’s in Little Rock flourishes, largely unchanged.
This is the story of how it came to be and how it persists as told by staff, friends and customers.
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George Eldridge (founder of Doe’s Eat Place in Little Rock and legendary restaurateur): I was in the construction business. Deconstruction, actually. I did demolition, explosion-type stuff of buildings and bridges. This is the mid-’70s. I had been hanging around The Band Box when I was in town with Tommy Marbut, the owner. It was a Bandidos hangout. I knew all those guys and got along with them. They were good people. Marbut said to me one day, “I want to sell you this place.” I said, “I don’t want a beer joint.” He said, “I’m going to sell it to you with a deal you can’t turn down — $2,500.” I said I’d do it under one condition: that Lucille will stay.
Lucille Robinson (longtime Eldridge culinary partner): It was like he wanted it, but he didn’t want to get it unless’n I stay. So me and him sat down and talked, and I decided to stay, and he bought it.
George Eldridge: Tommy was the owner, but Lucille was the boss. She ran that thing with an iron hand. Someone would get too loud or get out of hand, she’d field dress them. She was sort of the head honcho. She bossed me around. She’d tell me when I was screwing up. I appreciated that. She’s a great woman. She was from the old school, like I was.
Katherine Eldridge (Doe’s owner, George’s daughter): The Band Box was a biker bar. So you’d have the Bandidos mixed in with your bond daddies and downtown customers.
George Eldridge: I used to feed Bill Clinton down at The Band Box when he was governor. He and Hillary both would send down there and get hamburgers to go.
I was there three years or so. Some guys came by and wanted to buy it, and I sold it, and I had a year noncompete. I found a place on 414 Louisiana for The Sports Page. I built that place and opened it the day my noncompete ran out.
I really got to know Clinton when he got beat by Frank White. We had an office at The Sports Page back in the back, and Clinton would hang out there. He just kind of moped around and was down and out. Finally, he was hanging out with some people and we said, “Look, what are you gonna do, you gonna sulk for the rest of your life or are you gonna do it again?” We got tired of hearing him pissing and moaning. He said, “I think I’ll run again.” And we said, “Hell, we’ll raise some money for you.”
We had four Sports Pages that opened, three in Little Rock and one in Nashville, Tenn. We sold all those in 1986. I was going to take off a year or two and do nothing. But then Billy Rector brought me the Buster’s deal. [Buster’s in the Union Train Station was founded by James “Buster” Corley, who along with Dave Corriveau, owner of Slick Willy’s, later founded Dave and Buster’s in Dallas.] I sold Sports Page on a Friday, bought Buster’s on Saturday, Sunday we inventoried and opened. Buster’s was kind of a wild and crazy place. I don’t think we made much money down there, but we had a lot of fun.
Katherine Eldridge: I was 21 when I worked at Buster’s. It was a fern bar with all the plants and the brass. They were real popular back then. We had a huge happy hour crowd down there every day. It was a different time. We had all the bond daddies come in one day buying bottles of Dom. The next day they might need to sign their check because they didn’t have the money to pay you.
Tim Jones (Doe’s server 1988-1995): I lived at Second and Ringo when Richard Harrison [of Pizza Cafe fame] bought Betty’s Doghouse. It was a hobo dive that entertained the clientele that frequented the Salvation Army. It had been a beer joint.
George Eldridge: What happened was, Richard Harrison had put a place here called Rock City Cafe, and it had failed and somebody called me about it and let me in to look at it, and I saw the broiler in there like the one Doe’s had. We’d been going down [to the original Doe’s Eat Place in Greenville] in the late ’60s and ’70s. We had a company plane, and we’d get some friends together and fly over. They’d pick us up from the airport. It was a destination, a kind of unique place. I said, “This place is funky enough and we already got a broiler. We might make a Doe’s out of this.” So I flew down there and talked to them about it. We agreed and made a deal. And it’s been 33 years.
Governor Hutchinson (regular): I’ve been to Greenville. I sure like what we’ve got in Little Rock.
Katherine Eldridge: When we came down here, we just had the main dining room and the kitchen. The backroom was not a liquor store, but a beer store — Doghouse Liquor. It wasn’t long after we opened that they went out of business. My dad could already tell that the business was going to be good, so we asked to rent that room. The [Doghouse] sign looks terrible now. But you can’t do anything with that sign. It’s got to be original, I think. It’s part of our history of this building.
Jones: What we saw was that there was an instantaneous clientele of people growing up going to the one in Greenville. If I had a nickel for every time I heard someone tell me, “I went there in 1955, and you walked in through the kitchen … .” We had farmers coming in in overalls with a wad of one hundreds in their pocket. Don’t judge a book by its cover. You never could tell who’s coming in the front door. They might own half a county in Southeast Arkansas.
The success of that place initially was really on the shoulders of Bonnie Mack. He was the chef. He was a larger-than-life character in personality and size, too. I think he played for the Vikings for half a season and then got cut. He was an enormous man. He had hands as big as your head. Initially they were getting meat that was already cut. He didn’t like the way it was done. They got a bandsaw, and he’d go back there with these enormous shoulder loins and with flesh flying. In a lot of ways he was very sweet and very kind. He had a great sense of humor. But if you threatened his status of being in charge, he would let you know.
During the day, Lucille ran the show. She had all these relationships with all these folks for working downtown for so long. She had a whole family of people who came with her who knew how to run her kitchen her way. They would churn out burgers that everybody loved. All the clientele that had been hanging out at The Band Box and knew her were quick to come and hang out with her at Doe’s.
George Eldridge: I think what the main deal is, is good food and good service. You go in a damn restaurant and you’ve got page after page of stuff. I want to get up and leave. I know I’m going to be disappointed. I always have limited menus. You can’t do everything good. We specialize in tamales and steaks, some seafood, and we try to do it better than anybody else.
Katherine Eldridge: We are very blessed that we have people staying. That’s not common in the restaurant business. The only position we have a hard time keeping filled is the dishwasher position.
Debra Wadley (general manager, employee since 1991): Why do people stay? I’m a good boss (laughs). It’s just loyalty. Especially servers and kitchen help, you try to keep them happy. If you’ve been here for less than five years, you’re a newby.
Jones: It’s kind of familial and there’s a good deal of personal loyalty, but the fact is that it’s a consistent and predictably profitable place to work, and that’s hard to come by. How many restaurants in the town have opened and closed since that place opened?
George Eldridge: We just treat everybody the same. When I go by your table, I don’t care what color you are or what your hair length is or what you’ve got on as long as you’re not naked. I thank you for coming and I appreciate it, and I mean that. It’s not just bullshit. I’m sincere about my customers.
Katherine Eldridge: Selling steak by the pound and serving it family style, those are two things that you don’t find anywhere. Especially serving it family style, that’s something that’s really hard for some people to wrap their heads around. The other thing is that we age our meat 30 days. That’s what makes it so tender and gives it the flavor.
David Brown (chef, Doe’s employee since 1989): We cut six to 10 loins a day.
Katherine Eldridge: We almost always sell out of porterhouses.
Brown: A lot of people call and want porterhouses reserved. It’s like the Mercedes of the steak.
George Eldridge: One day this great big old tall cowboy-looking guy, kind of John Wayne-looking guy, said he was looking for George Eldridge. He pulled out a badge and said, “I’m enforcement for USDA.” He asked where we were getting our tamales, and I told him from Greenville. Then he asked if they were USDA inspected. I said, “I don’t know.” He could tell I was ignorant. He made me dump all our tamales into the dumpster and said, “If I come down here and catch you with those tamales, you’re not going to like it.”
Eldridge began contracting with a company in Newport to make the tamales, then he bought that factory, later moving the operation to Augusta. He later sold the Augusta factory. But after the new owners shut it down, he started making tamales out of his house in Gregory (Woodruff County), which led to the creation of a Doe’s-like outpost called The Tamale Factory, adjacent to his house. He recently built a USDA-certified production facility on his property and plans to distribute Papa’s Delta Style Beef Tamales, through Ben E. Keith and U.S. Foods, to Doe’s franchises and other restaurants.
George Eldridge: I think our spices are the secret to the tamales. I think that’s the main deal. We use USDA hamburger meat, 80/20 fine ground. We add different spices to the meat. The difference between Mexican tamales and ours is we use white corn meal, not masa. We mix spices in with the meal. The meal is not cooked. The meat is. When we extrude it, it comes out like a snake and then we’ve got this ferris wheel on a conveyor that cuts it. When the restaurants get ’em, they have to cook ’em. Cornmeal swells up and makes it really tight.
Paul Berry (lobbyist, regular, longtime Eldridge friend): Some of us who lobbied needed a private dining room.
Wadley: I named it the Power Room. That’s my name. Powerful people, in their own minds, like to sit in the far back room.
George Eldridge: Ten lobbyists put up $1,000 a piece, and I paid them back with tabs, and they had exclusive rights to the room.
Berry: We ate ourselves rich. Bill Clinton watched the Razorbacks in the Final Four back there. Don Tyson and Willie Nelson and Greg Allman have been back there.
Jones: George knows a lot of folks. Levon Helm and Albert King came in. I remember one time, we shut the place down and Levon Helm and Fred Carter were trading songs in a big circle of an odd assortment of folks who worked there and lobbyists and friends and folks in the back room. That sort of thing didn’t happen very often, but it was real cool when it did.
A large painting by J.O. Buckley hangs in the back room. It’s an exact replica of Diego Velazquez’ 17th century masterpiece “The Triumph of Bacchus (or Los borrachos),” except that Bacchus resembles Eldridge.
George Eldridge: It was Velazquez’s vision of Bacchus as a common man. I thought that was a very appropriate piece for the Power Room.
Hutchinson: I’m sure the first time I came to Doe’s was for the ’90 campaign for attorney general. Back then it was Clinton territory. For a Republican you almost felt like you were intruding. As time goes on, you can see it changing. While Doe’s itself has been unchanging, they always welcome the politics of either stripe.
Doe’s became the unofficial hangout for the ’92 Clinton campaign.
Katherine Eldridge: We were doing pretty well before, but the Clinton thing really put us on the map.
Brown: When Clinton was running for president, his No. 1 thing was those french fries. He loved those fries. He was easy going. You could talk to him.
Jones: George Stephanopoulos and James Carville, Stan Greenberg, Mandy Grunwald, Dee Dee Myers — they all came almost every night. If they were in town, they came. Just kind of over and over. It was a routine. Mostly without fanfare. They didn’t want to be bothered. They were friendly. What happened from my perspective was that it seemed almost to the point of superstition: “This is what we’re doing.”
Katherine Eldridge: Jane Pauley was the first famous person who walked in here.
Jones: The idea that Clinton hung out there was a myth that we profited from and enjoyed. He didn’t really come in that often; he was off campaigning. It was his people that were coming in there. Because of that the media began to come. They knew that was a place you could get a story, get access and get a good meal and some local flavor, too.
Brown: A guy by the name of Wolf Blitzer was here. Barbara Walters.
Wadley: Andy Rooney, who was always grumpy on TV, was in here. He was an asshole.
George Eldridge: That interview with Rolling Stone, that was a good deal.
Rolling Stone conducted its Sept. 17, 1992, cover interview with Bill Clinton in Doe’s and mentioned the restaurant in the introduction.
Jones: I’d heard that Rolling Stone was coming in the next day and that they’d reserved the whole back room and I didn’t know what that was about. But I knew that most of the people working lunch really didn’t know or care one way or another about Rolling Stone. I didn’t know what to expect. But when Jann Wenner and P.J. O’Rourke and Hunter S. Thompson walked in the room, I was like, “Damn, this is special.”
I was a fly on the wall. You never know when someone is going to need a fresh cocktail or a top off on a glass of tea. I just stood there.
Hunter S. Thompson came in in the middle of the summer and he was wearing a suit and coat and sitting up in the bar. The air conditioning, in those days, did not keep up. He’s just wringing wet, just pouring sweat. He ordered a Bloody Mary, and I made him one. Then he ordered a beer, and I gave him another one, and he’s just stacking up drinks. He seemed perpetually uncomfortable.
He came in on a number of times after that. He had a duck call and wouldn’t stop quacking the duck call. George, who for the most part, would not really comment on the recreational habits of any clientele, said one time, “He sure is pissed off at himself about something.”
George Eldridge: Hunter Thompson got to be a really good friend of mine. He was crazy as a bat. He spent the week in Cuba with me. I was never so glad to get him out of there. Goddamn, I thought he was going to get us executed. He was a nut and he was a doper. I told him, I said, “Hunter whatever you do don’t bring any dope down there.” He said, “Why?” I said, “Goddamn, they’ll kill you. They’ll line you up with a firing squad and shoot your ass if you’ve got cocaine or heroin. They don’t put up with it.”
Jones: The night Clinton was elected, or basically the week he was elected, was maybe the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life. The place was just packed to the gills day in, day out. I remember George Stephanopoulos being pissed off at me because he had reserved a table for 20, and we literally didn’t have people to keep the crowd back, and he didn’t have his table. If anyone deserved to have a reservation honored, it was him.
Wadley: There were a couple of weeks I didn’t think we were going to make it through. I was getting dumpsters emptied every day. I was getting beer and wine deliveries every day. It went on for five days. On Election Night, Don Tyson was here. He bought drinks for the whole restaurant for about two hours. It was standing room only.
From Richard Martin’s Election Night coverage in the Arkansas Times:
Doe’s Eat Place, by now the nationally known power center for the Clinton inner circle, lived up to its billing. Proprietor George Eldridge, normally the coolest of hosts, was flustered by the backroom scene where a gang of Clinton’s Georgetown buddies partied with campaign honchos. When the Clinton officer corps — pollster Stan Greenberg, strategist James Carville and campaign manager David Wilhelm — entered Doe’s main room, a hush fell on the boisterous room.
Comedian Buck Henry, in town to host Comedy Central’s live coverage of election day activities, sipped a beer at a side table. Rolling Stone “political correspondent” Hunter S. Thompson slugged margaritas from a beer mug. Texas columnist and author Molly Ivins dropped in alone and joined a politically sympathetic legislator, state Sen. Vic Snyder, for dinner. It was Studio 54 on Markham. Clinton staffers delivered small homilies. They smiled, they chatted, and the long-maintained mask of modesty and under-confidence began to fall away. The deed was done: victory was finally at hand.
Robinson: We went to the inaugural when Clinton went to the White House. Later, I cooked in the White House kitchen. They had a party up there. We took tamales and chili and stuff up there. They had a party for the Navy, I think it was.
George Eldridge: It was unbelievable being in Washington then. If you were from Arkansas, much less with the president’s favorite restaurant here, you were a rock star. I’d go have a drink and these people would start whispering, “It’s the guy that owns Doe’s.” It was like you were a damn rock star.
Famed photographer Annie Leibovitz took a portrait of George Eldridge and Robinson for a 2009 Vanity Fair photo essay on alumni from Clintonland. The article quotes Carville telling Robinson, “I paid for your jewelry. I send your kids to college.”
Robinson: (Laughs over the Carville quote) He put that in there. I have nine children, six boys and three girls. They all worked for George. They would come in, clean up and be around and go to school.
Katherine Eldridge: I was here until 1997 and then took a break to raise my kids and moved to Hot Springs. My brother [George Eldridge III] died in [a car wreck] in 1997. I just kind of needed to take a break. I moved back to Little Rock after my kids were grown. My dad was ready to slow down and talked about us selling. At first, I said OK because I swore I’d never come back to the restaurant business. But when it came right down to it, I couldn’t stand the fact that it would be someone else’s.
George Eldridge: Katherine has done better than I ever could. I’m thankful.
Adam Edmondson (manager, Katherine’s son and George’s grandson): The restaurant was open a year before I was even born. I don’t ever remember not being here. I remember watching TV in the back as a kid, like we’d turn on Nickelodeon, or if I was sick, I remember sitting on the pickle bucket behind the bar and mom would give me math problems to do. I’ve always been here.
Katherine Eldridge: I put new flooring in next door and painted and did some stuff, and I had some customers come in after I did that, and they said, “If you keep making it look good, we’re gonna quit coming.” I’ve done things a little here and there, but I have to hold myself back.
George Eldridge: I had a bed and breakfast license and a commercial restaurant license for my place in Gregory. For a while we were cooking tamales for Doe’s in my house. We had a hand crank machine. After about two years, I said, “Hell, I can’t stand this.” Everything I had smelled like tamales. And they were coming into my house at 4 in the morning.
So I built an event center in the barn. I intended originally just to use it to cook tamales. Then I said I’ll build a little bar. Hell, there’s no place in Woodruff County to go. Maybe there’d be a few people on weekends. Then we built a full-blown restaurant. It seats about 60 people in the front and about 30 in the back. Got seven bar stools.
It turned into a real deal. We draw from about a 60-mile radius. Dollar for dollar it’s been the most successful restaurant I’ve ever done. We’re only open two nights a week. It paid for itself in a year.
Michael John Gray (chairman of the Democratic Party of Arkansas, longtime Eldridge family friend): On a random summer Friday night — I’m from Woodruff County, the second smallest county by population, and I feel like I know 90 percent of the people and if I don’t know their name, I know their face — I can walk in there on a Friday night and the tables will be full, and I don’t know a soul in there aside from the people working there. It’s unreal.
Wadley: I had these people [in Doe’s] one day, and I asked them if they wanted their steak bone, and they said, “Yeah, we’re gonna take it home and gnaw on it.” I said, “This is the kind of place you can gnaw on it here.”
Mike Brewster (regular): On a good week we come here two times a week.
Karen Brewster (regular, married to Mike): We’ve been here three times in a week before. This is how bad it is: I can get in my car and my iPhone will say, “It’s 12 minutes to Doe’s.” Like on Friday evenings.
Mike Brewster: One time a woman sitting nearby asked for steak sauce, and I leaned over and said, “Ma’am, just take your steak and dip it in this juice. Just one time.” And they never used steak sauce.
Karen Brewster: He gets so angry when he sees people ask for steak sauce.
Tommy Fisher (regular): I get made fun of because I come here so much.
April Fisher (regular, married to Tommy): We go other places, but at the end, we always say, “We should’ve gone to Doe’s.”
Wadley: When Mike Huckabee used to come in here, he wouldn’t shake hands with anyone. He wouldn’t even speak to the kitchen. Asa will go back there and tell everyone hello. Bill Clinton was that way, too.
Hutchinson: I like tradition. Of course the food is fantastic, simple but consistent. The atmosphere is something that is nostalgic, but at the same time you feel at home. I keep coming back. I’ve taken business prospects, including international guests, there. Whenever I’ve done that, when they come back they say, “Can we go back there?”
For lunch, I always get the tamales and chili and a hamburger or chili. Or a grilled cheese. At dinner, everybody goes for the steak. I love the salmon, too.
Gray: I’ve yet to go there in the five years I’ve been in politics and not either run into a legislative colleague, a friend from a state agency, friends from government relations or the lobbyist community. It’s still the go-to place for political folks.
Around 2010, President Clinton revealed that he was eating a near-vegan diet.
Berry: Clinton will still eat french fries when he comes back in town.
George Eldridge: The last time I saw him, I hugged him. I felt like I was hugging a skeleton. I’ve got a doctor up at the Mayo Clinic who’s a vegan. He’s alway telling me you need to eat from the stalk. I said, “I’ve got a buddy that’s a vegan, he’s probably the most famous vegan in the world, and he looks like hell. He gonna dry up and blow away. So you can take that vegan shit and stick it where the sun don’t shine.”