Say the words “fine dining” and certain expectations are brought to mind: white tablecloths, salad forks, and a menu filled with delicious-sounding dishes punctuated by eye-popping price tags. I’ve certainly eaten a few of those meals, and many of them have certainly been fine — but there’s more to “fine dining” than the price to be paid. And there’s more to cheap eats than the Mickey D’s drive-thru.
Here are my top picks for restaurants around the city where the dining is fine — and the price is, too.
*Layla’s Gyros and Pizzeria: Layla’s has become something of a mini-chain these days, with two locations in Little Rock and one in Conway. For my money, this is the sweetest of sweet spots where value meets taste — there’s simply nothing bad on the menu, and the most expensive item, the Mubarak Plate, clocks in at $12.99 and consists of more food than any one human should eat in one sitting (I’ve totally done it, though).
What to order: Greek Salad ($6.75), Gyros Sandwich ($4.75), Gyro/Chicken Calzone ($6.50), Greek Pizza ($6.95)
*David’s Burgers: David’s is another mini-chain in Central Arkansas, and another excellent way to get a lot of tasty food for your hard-earned dollar. Handmade burgers with a choice of toppings will delight diners of all ages, and while “endless” fries aren’t unique to David’s, theirs are uniquely crispy, tasty, and fresh. Service is also generally impeccable and friendly.
What to order: The #1 Combo — one burger, an order of fries, and a drink, all for under $8. For under $10, you can make that burger a double, just keep in mind that David’s 1/3 pound patties are quite a delicious mouthful.
*The Root: So what do you want? A restaurant who can win reader polls for their burgers? And their vegetarian options? And their breakfast? Yes, you get all that and more at the South Main Street cafe. The Root stresses local ingredients, bold flavors, and comfort food — and they do it all at a very affordable price. If you haven’t had a chance to check the place out, go take advantage of their diverse, delicious menu at once!
What to order: Spicy Bahn Mi ($6.95), Root Benny ($6.75), or check out their daily specials.
*Pho Thanh My: Pho hasn’t gotten trendy in Little Rock (yet), but we do have a pretty excellent place to get it over in West Little Rock. Not in the mood for noodles? Well, I’m not sure why you wouldn’t be, but the menu has a wide variety of other Vietnamese delicacies that are sure to please.
What to order: Pho choices run from $7.95-$10.95 and come with a massive variety of toppings. Bún thịt nướng ($7.50) with either char-grilled shrimp or pork is a delight.
*Oyster Bar: The Stift Station eatery is a classic Little Rock restaurant where the beer is cold and the food is good. A tasty raw bar will shuck as many as you can eat, and the Cajun and Creole dishes will suit your tooth.
What to order: Keep up with the daily specials to stretch your dollars to their limit. Of particular note is Monday’s $6.75 All-you-can-eat Red Beans and Rice — a steal. Wash it down with a pitcher of Guiness for $13.50.
*Mark’s Do-nut Shop: What can we say about Mark’s other than that these are simply the best dadgum fried dough delights in the state.
What to order: Everything. Spike your blood sugar for under $5 with fresh, fantastic doughnuts.
*Ristorante Eliella: Authentic Mexican food at a nice price. What’s not to love? The last time I was in, the entire crew was out front spinning tubs of cream and sugar in a huge troughs of ice to create ice cream — dinner and a show!
*What to order: Tacos. For less than $2 each, you can eat tacos al pastor, tacos de tripa, tacos de pollo, lengua, carne asada, and on and on. The longnecks are cheap, too. I once fed five people here for less than $40, and we all got really full.
*Ali Baba: Another great place for gyros. The shop is small, but the flavors are huge at the South Little Rock eatery and spice shop.
What to order: Grab the hummus, which is one of the best versions I’ve ever had. The gyro or shawarma sandwich with fries runs $6.99, and can be eaten on the go.
*Gus’s: The Memphis chain keeps it real by serving chicken, fried well, and served quickly. Spicy, crispy, and always moist, there just isn’t another fried chicken joint in town doing it as well as Gus’s.
What to order: Chicken, naturally. The Three Wing Plate will set you back $6.99 for three gigantic chicken wings and two sides. Good for lunch or supper!
Of course, this just scratches the surface of good cheap eats in the city. Have a delicious bargain to share with us? We’re all ears.