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New ballgame at Sports Page

By HELAINE R. WILLIAMS ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE

This article was published November 10, 2011 at 4:00 a.m.

chicken-fried-steak-with-mashed-potatoes-green-beans-and-toast-is-served-at-the-sports-page

Chicken-fried steak with mashed potatoes, green beans and toast is served at the Sports Page.

— The Sports Page has been at its current home for 31 years. We hadn’t been in the Sports Page for heavenknows-how-many.

We avoided it because of the size of the lunchtime crowd, the oppressive cigarette-smoke smell and food that took seemingly forever to arrive.

But it’s a new day, and the old girl now has a new owner — Eric Tinner, who also owns Sufficient Grounds across the street. Tinner had promised not to change the menu or ambience of the popular restaurant and said he’d still allow smoking for customers age 21 and older. But he has installed a new air system and Vent-A-Hoods to discourage people from referring to the restaurant as “The Smoke Page.”

A Sufficient Grounds fan, we decided to make our inaugural 21st-century foray into the Sports Page, whose decor screams retro: dimly lighted dining room bathed in neutral colors, looking like an old-school nightclub frequented by serious devotees. Various beer signs looking down on small, round tables bearing yellow Coors Lite condiment/menu caddies (despite the fact that no alcohol is currently served). Customers split by a smoking section in the south and a nonsmoking section in the north. Muted, big-screen corner TV, bearing news-channel images. Stereo softly playing oldies such as “Kodachrome” by Paul Simon. Big black and white poster of Elvis on the wall.

And the smoke? Not overwhelming as in days of yore. (Going after the lunch rush also helped.)

The restaurant is still not quite full service: Wait staff will attend to customers, but you pay up at the combination counter/bar. Our waiter was polite and attentive and, much to our delight, the food arrived quickly.

As the Sports Page is known for its burgers — which hearken back to the former Band Box restaurant — we knew we had to try one. The fully loaded cheeseburger ($5.75) did not disappoint. It was more tall than wide with a delightfully thick, perfectly cooked, dutifully tender, not-too-salty patty; delicately toasted bun; crisp lettuce and tomato; and just the right amount of mayonnaise, not too skimpy or overpowering.

Dining Companion had the Tilapia Po Boy, $6.50, which he proclaimed to be delicious. Everything, from the bun and the fish to the trimmings, was fresh; the tilapia had an appealingly crunchy texture, he added. We split an also sinfully tasty basket of fries ($3) and made a to-go order of the Grilled Chicken Salad ($6.15) to try later. Bearing a backdrop of the regular lettuceradicchio-tomato-and-cheese fare, the grilled chicken was well prepared and nicely seasoned.

On another visit we tried the Thursday-Friday special, the spaghetti ($7.05). Served with buttered Texas toast and a side salad, it was chililike, but not spicy; in fact, it was so carefully flavored that a dash of salt might be a welcome option for some. We also tried another specialty, a barbecued chicken sandwich ($6.25) that was slapone’s-granny good; the sauce took a fitting back seat to the wonderfully smoked flavor of the meat. The sweet potato fries ($2.25 individual serving; $3.80 basket) one-upped the regular fries.

Other Sports Page offerings include a smoked sausage sandwich ($5.65); a Chicken Philly as well as a Steak Philly (both $6.50); a Triple Header featuring corned beef, roast beef and ham with several cheeses on sourdough ($6.75); a fried bologna sandwich ($4 plus extra for bacon, cheese or tomato); specialty plates that include hamburger steak, foot-long chili dog and grilled tilapia ($6.25-$7.75); grilled deli meat sandwiches with choice of meats, cheeses and breads; a homemade soup du jour; and daily specials including barbecued pork, taco salad, French dip and, of course, the spaghetti ($6.50-$7.05).

Tinner plans a few cosmetic changes — and an alcohol permit — to get the Sports Page back to the sports-bar theme that gave it its shine during the glory days. He’s hoping downtown revitalization will enable him to expand the restaurant’s hours.

Meanwhile, to others who have not been by the Sports Page in a while, we say come on in. The water’s fine ... and there’s less smoke to go with it.

Sports Page

Address: 414 S. Louisiana St., Little Rock Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday Cuisine: Burgers, sandwiches, plate-lunch specials Alcoholic beverages: No Smoking: Permitted (patrons must be at least 21 years old) Credit cards: V, MC Wheelchair accessible: Yes Carryout: Yes (501) 372-1642

Weekend, Pages 31 on 11/10/2011

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