The moon is high. The fridge is empty. You haven’t had a bite since the early-bird lunch special and you’re far too considerate a human being to waltz into a local eatery and order up your dinner 10 minutes before closing time. (Aren’t you?) Lucky for you, the late-night dining game in Little Rock has gotten a whole lot stronger, and your options extend far past the realm of smothered-and-covered. Read on, night owl, and patronize some of the fine establishments offering up bar bites and couture fare into the wee hours.
1. Pantry Crest
722 N. Palm St.
4 p.m.-midnight Mon.-Sat.
The fact that this Pantry Eateries kitchen stays open late is only the beginning. First things first: Happy hour lasts all evening on Mondays, a day when many area restaurants are shuttered. Choice pilsners and pinot noirs can be had at cut rates, along with a bevy of small plates perfect for sharing after a show or when your after-work meeting ran ridiculously late and you’re ready to consume the first thing within sight that looks like a carbohydrate. There are the decadently Truffled Deviled Eggs; Pommes Frites; the silky House Made Ricotta, served in the center of a ring of charred bread slices; the house-made Liver Paté; the halved-and-charred Brussels Sprouts with Aioli; that apex of all German comfort foods, Cheese Spaetzle; and, maybe the best of all, the salty-sweet dualism of the Bacon Wrapped Dates on toothpick skewers. The Lasagna al Forno’s damned near the stuff of legends; the rotating, one-pot Rustic Bowl is consistently creative; and the house-pressed Country Terrine is a must. (Think: Spam’s erudite Parisian cousin.) Even better: It’s a place you can comfortably go out for a meal with your friends even during the leanest of months; The Pantry’s House-Made Sausage and Bratwurst, topped with mustard and your choice of vegetable lesco or sauerkraut and served on a Boulevard Bread hoagie, are $4.95.
2. Pantry West
11401 N. Rodney Parham Road
11 a.m.-midnight Mon.-Fri., 4 p.m.-midnight Sat.
The Pantry Eateries’ first location, est. 2009, is so many things. It’s the Zeus’ head from which its Hillcrest offshoot sprung in 2014. It’s a place to make you feel a little less plebeian after you’ve just spent an hour in Party City across Rodney Parham Road. It’s a place whose dim lighting and internal architecture seem uniquely suited to intimacy; you could hide away in a corner gazing into your beloved’s eyes for an entire evening without interruption. It is, in most other respects, similar to its Crest counterpart — a cozy Germanic hangout with consistently delightful small plates. It has a couple of major advantages over its off-Kavanaugh cousin: It serves lunch and is the exclusive spot for chef Tomas Bohm’s signature paella, an outsized, jovial celebration of a dish that requires an eight-person minimum and one week’s notice to serve.
3. Midtown Billiards
1316 S. Main St.
3 p.m.-5 a.m. daily
Like a great Phoenix with grease-tipped wings and Camel Lights on its breath, Midtown Billiards has risen from the ashes again and again. Sometimes the ashes were metaphorical; the spot’s revelry has been broken up by more than one booze-fueled brawl. Sometimes they were literal; the late-night dive and perennial Hub of Bad Decisions was forced to close and remodel after a particularly devastating fire in September 2016. And what were we robbed of in the subsequent months? For one thing, a dreadnought of a sandwich called the “Midtown Burger Challenge” that doubles as a gauntlet thrown at the most voraciously competitive of diners. Therein, challengers work their way through a stack of four beef patties, an entire can of Spam, and two fried eggs layered between buns and all the fixin’s. If they do it in half an hour, the sandwich is free; otherwise, they pay $25 for the sandwich and its digestive aftermath. You need not go to such extremes, though, and most don’t; Midtown’s staple — the plain cheeseburger — will do quite nicely, seasoned with all the oily history of that time-honored flat grill and the sloppy romance of marathon drinking.
4. Dugan’s Pub
401 E. Third St.
11 a.m.-2 a.m. Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun.
The Gaelic saying “Céad Míle Fáilte,” literally meaning “a thousand welcomes,” greets visitors above the doors at Dugan’s Pub at the corner of Third and Rock streets in the River Market district. Named for owner Don Dugan, former owner of Markham Street Grill & Pub, the spacious Irish-inspired pub slings customary bar food, such as cheese dip, nachos, burgers and chicken strips, along with “traditional Irish fare” — shepherd’s pie ($8.95), corned beef hash ($9.95) and bangers and mash ($8.95). A large drink menu welcomes patrons with cocktails, cocktail warmers, brews by the bottle and a rotating draft selection. The pub’s small slice of covered outdoor patio space is often busy, weather permitting, and Dugan’s also sometimes hosts live music. It regularly broadcasts professional and college football games. This corner of the River Market district is also home to Stratton’s Market at Dugan’s Pub, which offers groceries, specialty foods, produce, wine, beer and liquor, with an emphasis on local products. It’s open 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Sat.
5. Waffle House
24 hours daily
Waffle House, the pervasive diner chain that offers cakey waffles and hash browns served in a delightfully long list of ways — smothered, covered, chunked and, among many other options, the coyly phrased “all the way” style, which combines every option together for what must be a sight to behold — has a familiar appeal that’s rooted in the fact that Waffle House is for everyone. Teens squeeze into the booths in the thrillingly empty hours between dinner at home and an 11 p.m. curfew; early risers and folks getting off their overnight shifts line the counter at 5 a.m.; hungover college kids stumble in around noon to slurp down coffee and strips of crispy, greasy bacon, of which the Waffle House website says it slings 341 rashers per minute. The chain is dependable. Waffle Houses are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, so the warm, beckoning lights of each establishment, scattered like its hash browns across 25 states, are perpetually accessible for hungry, bored or weary travelers, drawn to those yellow block letters in the sky like moths to a flame.
6. Four Quarter Bar
415 Main St., North Little Rock
3 p.m.-2 a.m. Mon.-Sat., noon-2 a.m. Sun.
Bar grub’s come a long way in Little Rock in recent years, and Four Quarter — an offshoot of Maggie Hinson’s Midtown Billiards family — is leading the charge in the Argenta Arts District. The shotgun dive smokes its own pork and serves the best veggie hash in town. Elevated fare, such as Chicken Cordon Bleu rillades, arrives unceremoniously in those red checkered paper trays you get from food trucks; a pool of otherwise elegantly plated chorizo shrimp cheese grits lands on the table in a styrofoam bowl. It’s not unusual at all for the 4Q to smoke a pork belly to perfection, for example, and do something wild with it — batter it up like a corn dog, to pick a recent example. The food’s so good it’s almost a joke: a high-art-meets-low-art farce. Whatever it is, it translates on the paper plate to a barfly’s sweetest dream and a tongue-in-cheek mashup of fine dining with a state fair/gas station nachos aesthetic.
7. JJ’s Grill
12111 W. Markham St.
11 a.m.-midnight Mon.-Sat.
At the Rock Creek Square Plaza shopping center at Bowman Road and West Markham Street sits JJ’s Grill, a bar/restaurant that could be described as a bizarre hybrid of Applebee’s and Hooters. It has a few slogans, including “Do your mouth a favor” and “Boots, class and a lil’ sass.” In the “Meet Us” section of the restaurant’s website, a short video features narration by Jody Thornton, owner of JJ’s, as well as testimonials from customers and waitresses (whom Thornton and Andrew Locke, JJ’s general manager, refer to as “the girls”) about the live music, fresh food and friendly atmosphere. A menu of American bar food favorites is spiced up with some odd originals, such as the PB&J burger ($9.99), topped with grape jelly, bacon, peanut butter and Sriracha. Pricier “serious meals” on the menu include fish ‘n’ chips ($14.29) and JJ’s salisbury steak ($12.59), and there are a variety of salads, tacos and wraps to round out the eatery’s offerings. An addendum at the end of the menu asks “Date not hungry?” and lets customers know they can double an order of fries and add three onion rings for $3.29. This section also adds that while JJ’s is a “true short-order grill,” patrons will have to pay more for extra fixings because “if it costs me, it’s gonna cost you.” This Arkansas-only restaurant chain also has locations in Conway, Rogers, Bella Vista, Fort Smith, Springdale and Fayetteville.
8. Brewski’s Pub & Grub
315 Main St.
11 a.m.-midnight Sun.-Wed., 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Thu.-Sat.
Fratty vibes notwithstanding, the service at this double-decker Main Street pub belies the usual sports-bar mediocrity: The servers and bartenders may not be hip to the ways in which that Brewski’s logo was derived from a certain Boston bar of sitcom renown, but they still make you feel welcome to pull up a chair and order a tall one. Wall-filling flat screens surround diners. The beer is served killer cold and the wings piping hot. During some particularly long stints this summer staring (and OK, yelling) at a giant television in the cozy Brewski’s basement during the 2018 College World Series, we appreciated the variety of spots to perch on or curl up in: tall stools, low couches, cozy booths or convivial tables. Don’t sleep on those cheese curds, either.
9. Ciao Baci
605 N. Beechwood St.
4 p.m.-2 a.m. Mon.-Fri., 4 p.m.-1 a.m. Sat.
The cozy atmosphere of Ciao Baci, the Hillcrest bungalow-turned-eatery, welcomes guests to a friendly space that encourages conversation over its tapas-style small plates and appetizers, such as its rich, smokey sweet potato fries basket with chipotle honey ($8) or the utterly decadent baked pimento cheese, served with grilled pita and pepperoncini ($9). These “Ciao Baci Food Favorites,” as the menu describes them, are available from 4 p.m. until midnight, while the larger entree plates, described on the restaurant’s early fall 2018 menu as “Food Features,” are available 5-10:30 p.m. They include an ambitious chef’s tasting menu for $45, which, according to the menu, is a five-course progression of “what you should be eating.” Other food features, such as the pan-roasted duck breast ($24) or the butternut squash tamale ($14), come paired with well-conceived, complementary side dishes for a satisfying, full-belly experience. Ciao Baci hosts happy hour from 4-6 p.m. daily, and for those in the mood for a cocktail or glass of wine to get through the midweek slump, select bottles of wine are only $20 on Tuesdays and it’s happy hour all day on Wednesdays.