Between two human beings—hopelessly romantic, emotionally-driven creatures—I do not believe in “love at first sight.” On the other hand, when it comes to restaurants, its existence is an undeniable fact…one which has been manifest in my eating adventures several times. The most recent lovespell has been cast on me by White Water Tavern. This establishment has been a Little Rock landmark for many years but more recently began feeling the culinary caress of kitchenmaster, Jonathan Wilkins. After much prodding by fellow Eat Arkansas contributor, Michael Roberts, I recently joined him and fellow food geeks/bloggers, Kevin Shalin and Joel DiPippa, for lunch at the tavern.
Walking inside to dark, rickety tavern, I was struck by the inherent beauty of the place. Not the sparkling, pressed white linen, hoity-toity beauty you might expect from other more elegant dining rooms. It’s a gritty, weathered, imperfect sort of beauty, one that can never be perfectly recreated my artificial, ironic interior design. It’s a beauty that comes only from years of beer stains, scuff marks of dirty Converse All-Stars, and sweaty concertgoers. It’s a place that is so thick with character, you can almost cut it with a rusty butter knife.
The food, as promised, was simply splendid. At White Water, the menu, like the building itself, is not filled with glamorous, unfamiliar options. But upon closer analysis, one can easily see that the care and attention put into the food here elevates it to a level high above average bar fare. The burger, while an obvious inclusion on any tavern menu, is easily in the running for best in Little Rock. Local raw milk yellow cheddar and housebaked challah bun make appearances here, but it’s the 24 hour marinated beef that sets the burger apart from the flavors of average burgers elsewhere. You should do yourself a favor and sample the burger at some point in your life, but do not allow yourself to get stuck there…there are other items on this menu that warrant your attention.
An adequate analysis of Wilkins’ non-burger sandwiches requires a word about his housemade bread. Upon entering, you’ll quickly notice the lightly floured, freshly baked loaves of beer bread resting on the tavern countertop. You’ll probably also notice (perhaps with a great deal of anxiety) how quickly they tend to vanish as the orders begin to flood into the kitchen and food flies out to tables. This bread, the foundation for White Water’s myriad of sandwiches, is simply ethereal. Thick cut, lightly grilled on the flat-top, with a dense, satisfying chew…easily one of the most inspiring uses of flour, water, and yeast I have ever eaten.