You know that bar every sitcom seems to have? Maybe it’s a cafe. Or a grubby diner. And every episode, the characters migrate to the comfort of nameless pints of beer or magically refilling mugs of coffee. There’s never a panic over the bill or a long decision on what to order. There are always other people there, but never too many. Of course, this miracle doesn’t exist. Not really. Bank accounts would be drained and waistlines inflated if you really planted yourself at the same bar night after night.
Hidden on a mostly residential stretch in Hillcrest, The Pantry Crest is hitting the center of that Venn diagram on a busy Tuesday night. Yes, Tuesday. Just a few weeks into its tenure, the restaurant already has a steady crowd. That’s in many ways thanks to its older west Little Rock sister, The Pantry, which has been winning over guests since 2009.
Both restaurants are focused on moderately priced German and Czech cuisine, a handful of house-concocted cocktails and comfortable, but not too trendy, surroundings. But something about the Hillcrest location seems extra cozy.
It’s likely due to the restaurant being an actual renovated house. Although the venue on Palm Street has been a restaurant for a while now (previously operating as Sufficient Grounds, Laughing Moon Cafe and The House Gastropub, which ended its run in August 2013), from the front porch to the worn wooden staircase inside, it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’re enjoying dinner at your aunt’s house. And that aunt is super chill. Between light-gray walls, dark wood tables and murmured conversation, the dining rooms at Pantry Crest wrap you up in a way that makes you ignore the chatter of the table next to you, especially when paired with a gin cocktail and a pile of bacon-wrapped dates at happy hour.
Those weekday hours from 4-6 p.m. are best enjoyed at the downstairs bar, where there’s little distance between you and sheer indulgence. Appetizers all border on gluttonous: truffle oil-infused deviled eggs, savory pork rillette with baguettes, pommes frites with garlic mayo, cheese spaetzle, and those dates, all served up on simple white ceramic dishware. You can also throw all caloric caution to the wind and gorge on The Pantry’s Board, a veritable wonder of house-made meats, including bratwurst, pate and smoked turkey; pickled vegetables; cheeses; and bread for sopping up the whole mess. At $20, it’s wholly worth it. An extensive wine and beer list (heavy on imports) helps wash things down, but the real focus at the bar is that gin cocktail you just downed. There are five more on the menu just like it. Not gin, necessarily, but easy drinking and well-balanced. The guy behind the stick can just as easily whip up a classic like a sazerac, but if you’re here, be bold and go for the Czech Punch, which blends gin with lemon juice, bitters, Falernum and Becherovka, a bittersweet herbal liqueur straight from the Czech Republic.
If you need more elbow room to work on that meat-and-cheese board, there are a handful of tables in the dining area just behind your seat at the bar, but things are even better a floor above. The open wooden staircase emphasizes the uniqueness of the venue and is an easy climb, so long as you avoid the servers gingerly balancing plates of food on their ascent.
The second-floor dining capacity is roughly twice what it is downstairs but still maintains that homey vibe, thanks to seating areas in separate nooks. It’s clear that the floor used to be divided into several rooms, but the walls are gone now, leaving just that hint of separation, with seating areas tucked into small corners where rooms used to be. Oversized paintings, some 3-D paper wall hangings and a mural on the ceiling above the stairs draw the eye, as do large windows overlooking Hillcrest. Your server may ask if you’re from the neighborhood, but you’re not alone in answering “no.”
It’s partially those bacon-wrapped dates and truffle deviled eggs, but it’s also the sheer uniqueness of the concept. No one else in central Arkansas is pulling off a combination German/bistro/cocktail lounge. And certainly no one else is providing it at the price tag Pantry Crest holds itself to. Here, you can get a beautifully plated Caesar salad of grilled romaine hearts or a steaming bowl of simmered cod and shrimp in a saffron and tomato stock without breaking the bank.
As the remains of a plate of mussels swimming in white wine broth and the scraps of perfectly fried pork weiner schnitzel you couldn’t quite get to are swept away, you’re getting ready for arguably the best part of the meal here: the check. Because glancing down at a check that reads under $70 for a party of two—with appetizers and multiple cocktails—is a real treat. And yes, they even serve you a few mini cinnamon-sugar cookies as you sign the check just to make sure they’re sending you out on a cloud of good-restaurant-deal bliss. Wouldn’t want you to get hungry on your way home, after all. See? Just like your aunt.
722 N. Palm St.,
Little Rock | 501-725-4945
Truffled Deviled Eggs, Baked Bacon-Wrapped Dates, The Pantry’s Board, Grilled Romaine Hearts, Knockwurst, Jager Schnitzel, Stockpot, Cheesecake
Yes, especially early in the evening on slower nights
$4-$7 for appetizers,
$10-$16 for mains
Limited reservations are available for parties of six or more