News broke just before lunch on Sept. 19, 2016, news broke that Midtown Billiards was on fire. Rapidly, the era of social media spread some shocking pictures of smoke billowing from this fabled institution, though later that day Midtown vowed to reopen from damage that looked far worse than it was. While the possible loss of this legendary establishment floated through the air, it leads to thoughts about what a bar like Midtown really means.
Midtown Billiards is the home of questionable decisions, early morning revelry and a motley collection of people finding a home while the rest of the world slumbers. For all of its flaws, Midtown embodies a specific and distinct corner of Central Arkansas culture. Holding one of the few 5 a.m. private club licenses in the city, Midtown often doesn’t get busy until other establishments have passed last call. The bar is far more than just after-hours drinks and late night parties. Midtown is an institution that embodies all of the best qualities of a dive bar.
For most people, Midtown elicits thoughts of bleary eyed nights full of the legendary hamburgers, fantastic Bloody Marys, and open door. Once listed by Esquire as one of the Best Bars in the Country, Midtown has the rare distinction of serving generations and acting as a cultural shorthand in Arkansas. The magic of Midtown begins with accepting everyone who comes through the door — no matter who you are, who you were or how get there. Midtown is an equalizer with stories of politicians, musicians, bartenders and everyone in between frequenting the dark and smokey space on South Main Street.
The late nights mean that Midtown attracts a fervent following in people who don’t live a 9 to 5 life — bartenders and waitresses, TV news anchors and newspaper reporters, shift workers and the young or young-at-heart escaping the daily grind. This is only the beginning of why Midtown holds a fabled status. Midtown is a neighborhood bar that opens its doors in time for a late afternoon beer by locals and workers alike. Thursday nights see a crowd when bottle toss is being played while everyone within five blocks knows they are welcome.
With over 85 years of history, Midtown is a cultural fixture. Aside from generations of bar goers, Midtown is a constantly involved with charities and the community. Midtown is gives back to the community through the LRKA Big Red Ball charitable foundation, the Hamboy Food Bank and more. Midtown is part of the South Main Mardi Gras festival, with shrimp etoufee and decorations eliciting the best and brightest of the holiday.
Midtown isn’t simply a bar, but an old school neighborhood bar. Life has happened inside those walls — friends made, friends lost over questionable decisions and memories indelibly imprinted on your life. Anytime, any day (except for Christmas), Midtown provides a family and a welcoming space. They give back to the neighborhood and the state while staying true to their dive bar roots. The stories spread as TC’s Midtown Grill in Conway and Four Quarters in North Little Rock are legacies of Midtown in their own rights. This is what the best bars create — community, belonging, and a definite sense of self. Everything to ever happen at Midtown isn’t golden and those questionable decisions may be more frequent for some, but it shows what is means to be a social and cultural fixture.
Places where you can pull up a stool at the end of the day and meet someone new are few and far between today. It is important to have common places outside of home and work for a society and culture to thrive — Midtown has never shied away from offering that. The place has been home to every topic imaginable from the most inane to the most esoteric. It has served to inspire, warn and welcome in due course all who have come their way. Bands who take the stage after midnight drive the morning forward while ne’er-do-wells and neighbors will start the evening with a beer and a burger.
This fire doesn’t only serve to remind us what that space means, but what the people there mean. There is a human cost to this shutdown — employees with no other jobs are now facing an uncertain few months making ends meet, caring for their loved ones,and just living. A testament to Midtown’s reach is already hearing that South on Main, Stickyz on Friday, Four Quarters on Saturday, and Ernie Biggs next Tuesday are planning benefits to help the employees and, if need be, the owners stay on their feet as this icon of Little Rock shakes off the smoke and dust to endure for another generation of dreamers, insomniacs, and revelers. Keep an eye out for more about these benefits and give what you can for the people and the institution that have given so much over the decades.