It wasn’t so long ago that the 300 block of Little Rock’s Main Street was quiet at night. There were no valets, no one crowding the sidewalks waiting for a table—just the silence of storefronts shuttered after dark.
Thankfully, times have changed. Because as even one glance at the glow filtering through soaring windows at the corner of Fourth and Main on a Friday is sure to reveal, Main Street is sparking back to life. Inside Samantha’s Tap Room and Wood Grill, the bar is packed wall to wall with the downtown happy-hour crowd. In the dining room, tables are held onto by lingering diners who have driven from west Little Rock, Hillcrest and the Heights just to check out the new spot.
In January, Samantha’s opened on the ground floor of downtown’s Mann on Main building. From the first night the doors opened to the public, the tables dotting the cavernous dining room have been crowded with pints and plates. But it’s the bar along the south wall that sees the most action.
Somewhere in the tangle of arms trading freshly poured glasses of wine for debit cards, there are bar stools. But you’d have to sneak out of the office right at closing time to snag one. The line behind the seats is two deep in some spots by 7 p.m. Those looking to grab a drink while they wait (and wait) for a table—those who aren’t lucky enough to snag a bar stool or one of the handful of first-come, first-served high tops near the bar—have plenty of standing room. And there’s no shortage of a view. Beyond the flat-screens beaming out the sporting event of the moment from behind the bar, the downtown lights shine in. At Samantha’s, it’s easy to forget that Little Rock isn’t in the same weight class as Dallas or Nashville. This corner feels big-city.It’s what co-owners Chris and Samantha Tanner imagined when they first decided to take on the project with a team of investors. The Tanners were familiar with the Little Rock restaurant scene after running a catering business and taking over ownership of Cheers in the Heights in 2000. Recently, the pair noticed that downtown—an area previously overlooked by many for a night out—was starting to draw diners from all over town. So the couple took on the empty shell at Fourth and Main and filled it with the sleek, reclaimed wood tables, gray leather booths and oversized hanging-drum-shaded lighting they’d spied on trips to New York. They wanted to make their corner a metropolitan destination.
But back to that wait. Expect one. Like so many restaurants in Little Rock, Samantha’s is no-reservations after 6 p.m. Because it’s 2015, they’ll text you when your table is ready. Waiting an hour and a half or more isn’t unusual at peak times on a Friday, but expect better wait times at lunch or on off nights. And with 32 beers and 20 wines on tap, there are ways to kill the time. The beer here is craft, the wines boutique. In keeping with true downtown style, neither is exactly cheap. But the selection is one of the best in the neighborhood.
Staying true to the taproom part of its name, there are no craft cocktails at Samantha’s. But the owners have been happy to point customers down the street to cozy speakeasy 109 & Co. for after-dinner drinks. Along with neighbors Bruno’s Little Italy, the restaurant offers free valet parking. It’s the kind of cooperation that a chamber of commerce would drool over—organic and positive. A neighborhood on the cusp of something larger, its denizens working in tandem to help each other succeed.
It helps, of course, that the restaurants on this stretch of Main have each settled into their own niche—at least so far. Samantha’s focuses on the kind of mash-up of cuisines that often falls under some general description like “serves American favorites.” You can start with pico de gallo and queso blanco or, remembering that this is the South, after all, dive into a pile of cooked-to-order pork rinds. Entrees range from a hearty Cuban sandwich or skirt-steak tacos to Asian barbecue-marinated lamb chops. The unifying force here is the cooking method. The majority of entrees are grilled over mesquite and hickory wood, lending a unique smokiness to the pork chops and salmon. The jalapeno-stuffed, bacon-wrapped quail is a can’t-miss, as are a handful of the a la carte sides. Who knew Asiago cheese grits and cilantro- and lime-spiked grilled corn alone would be worth returning for?
Following in the anything-goes feel of the menu, desserts include gelato and a Belgian waffle with a lightly caramelized crust and whipped-cream topping that’s sure to become a signature at Samantha’s. You can get those waffles up at the bar, too. And if you’re thinking a warm waffle might pair well with a pint of chocolate stout, the answer is an unabashed “yes.”
Or you could get more creative and take that dessert to go. Outside the restaurant, a freshly bricked, curb-free and tree-lined street is pedestrian friendly in a way that’s been sorely lacking from much of downtown, a place where late-night strolls from dinner to drinks is possible again. And with new streetlights shining from above and chatter flowing from the sidewalk patios all around, there’s never been a better time to be on Main.