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RESTAURANT TRANSITIONS: Market Hall opening with farmers back

Outdoor spots sprout in SoMa and Argenta by Eric E. Harrison | April 8, 2021 at 6:41 a.m.
Bangkok Thai is one of the food vendors planning to return to the River Market's Ottenheimer Market Hall when it reopens May 1. (Democrat-Gazette file photo)

The River Market's Ottenheimer Market Hall, 400 President Clinton Ave., Little Rock, is set to reopen May 1 along with the opening for the season of the Little Rock Farmers Market in the River Market pavilions. Many of the food vendors who were operating in the Market Hall when it closed a year ago because of the pandemic will be returning, including Bangkok Thai, Big on Tokyo, Blue Sage Vegan, Casa Mañana, Fresh Bowl n Roll, Jay's Pizza, Middle Eastern Cuisine and Platnum BBQ (which has been operating a food truck in the interim). Set to open June 1: the David's Burgers outlet and Garden Square Grocery. Not returning: Old Mill Bread (they will, however, continue to operate their west Little Rock store) and Bea Blessed Bakery (but they will sell baked goods at the farmers market). Not yet sure (and neither are the River Market folks) as of our deadline: Pasta J Italian.

The Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau, which operates the River Market, is not taking in any new vendors at this time, nor does anybody have any firm idea what might become of the empty kiosks/booths. Market Hall hours will be 10 a.m.–2 p.m. Monday–Friday and 7 a.m.–3 p.m. Saturday. The Farmers Market will be up in the pavilions 7 a.m.–3 p.m. Saturdays through Sept. 25. Call (501) 375-2552 or visit RiverMarket.info or the Facebook page, Facebook.com/LRFarmersMarket. The River Market will also host festivities May 1 for 501 Day, the "new celebration of all things Central Arkansas." Visit Celebrate501.com.

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Also reopening with the arrival of spring: the area's two biggest pandemic-origin outdoor dining spaces:

◼️ The South Main Outdoor Dining Room, on the lot at 1301 Main St., Little Rock, reopened Friday, serving the several eateries on Main between 12th and 15th streets, including Raduno, South on Main, Community Bakery, Mockingbird Bar & Tacos, Esters, Rock n Roll Sushi, Boulevard Bread, Loblolly Creamery and The Root. Hours with available staff for cleanup, etc., are 5–9 p.m. Thursday–Saturday. There's no service in the tent; order food and drinks (including alcoholic beverages, under specific rules, through June) to-go from participating bars and restaurants, pick it up when it's ready, and find a seat.

Workers erect tents and barricades April 2 for the SoMa Outdoor Dining room. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)
Workers erect tents and barricades April 2 for the SoMa Outdoor Dining room. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

◼️ The Argenta Outdoor Dining District, which first surfaced in June on the third weekend of each of the next several months (well, more or less: April 16-18, May 21–23, June 18-20, July 16–18, Aug. 20–22, Sept. 17–19 and Oct. 15–17) will close off Main Street between Broadway and Fifth Street, 3 p.m. Friday through Sunday afternoon and erect tenting, tables and chairs. The restaurants along that stretch will offer food and, in most cases, alcoholic beverages indoors and outdoors, within legal limitations, with live music. Additional seating is available at Argenta Plaza, in the 500 block, which also falls within the outdoor dining district.

Fantastic China, 1900 N. Grant St. at R Street, Little Rock, which had been doing takeout and delivery only for months, reopened its dining room Monday with limited capacity until they've built back their wait staff (yes, they're hiring, one of many establishments that is — see below). Hours are 11 a.m.–2:30 p.m. and 5–9:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.–2:30 p.m. and 5–10 p.m. Friday-Saturday. The phone number is (501) 663-8999.

And New Asia Buffet, River Pointe Plaza, 11699 Maumelle Blvd., North Little Rock, has reopened and is offering a full buffet, 11 a.m.–8:30 p.m. Sunday–Thursday, 11 a.m.–9 p.m. Friday-Saturday. The phone number is (501) 753-9888.

And while we're on Maumelle Boulevard just east of Maumelle, Morningside Bagels, 10848 Maumelle Blvd., broke a sales record March 27, according to a March 28 post on Facebook (facebook.com/MorningsideBagels).

Food Truck Friday, a success in warmer weather last fall, resumes April 16 on the VIP lot of North Little Rock's Simmons Bank Arena, on the building's south side with a good view of Interstate 30. Assuming the pattern will be the same, four or five food trucks will assemble and vend, 11 a.m.–2 p.m. The list of trucks and menus will appear weekly at SimmonsBankArena.com. And the weekly event now has a sponsor: Coca-Cola.

The Whole Hog Cafe at 5107 Warden Road, North Little Rock, is moving down the road, with plans to open sometime in June in the former Applebee's, 4333 Warden Road. (So, yes, that puts paid to reports that a Red Robin is set to open there.) "The earlier we can start serving barbecue there, the better," says owner Daniel Bryant, who adds that while the free-standing new location promises additional space (including additional outdoor seating in a large covered and heat-able patio), what it primarily offers is a lot more parking, which is in short supply in the strip center where they're currently located. (Still available for that Red Robin, by the way, are the empty buildings in that row that previously housed outlets of Newk's and Old Chicago. You will recall JTJ is putting a Waldo's into the former Johnny Carino's.)

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As area restaurants reopen or return to full capacity, they're finding themselves — sometimes desperately — short of enough staff to handle the volume of people who have achieved full immunity from the coronavirus or are otherwise frantic to just get out again. Baja Grill, for example, put out an anguished plea on social media March 31 — "in dire need of help" — explaining that they were trying to run two restaurants (one in Benton, the other in Little Rock's Pulaski Heights) with only enough workers to staff one: "Unfortunately, if we cannot hire soon we will be forced to close additional days and/or shifts. ... We have the equivalent of 1 crew spread across 2 restaurants." By the next day (April 1), the volume of applications was sufficiently high that they posted this on Facebook: "We are grateful. You chose to share our job post and/or you chose to apply with us over the last 24hrs. We cannot thank you enough. You have made a difference to us & our hardworking crew. We are absolutely floored. If you applied, bear with us as we try to work our lunch/dinner service & simultaneously look thru applications. Thank you for taking the time out of your day to help us." Meanwhile, friends and contacts in the restaurant business report many other restaurants, including Corky's, Izzy's, Trio's, The Faded Rose and Soul Fish Cafe in Little Rock, were also eagerly hiring.

We're told that the target to open the Press Waffle Co. outlet at the 1424 SoMa development, 1424 Main St., Little Rock, has been pushed back to on or about June 1. We do have a listed phone number — (501) 804-4184, which only took us to a voicemail box — and a Facebook page (facebook.com/presslittlerock); there's a page on the website specific to Little Rock (presswaffleco.com/locations/soma) that yet contains no helpful information on a timeline or operating hours. You will recall that the menu includes "fully customizable authentic Belgian waffles" (Liege waffles, actually, dough-based with a brioche-like texture and caramelized clusters of Belgian pearl sugar) and "savory waffle creations," as well as locally roasted coffee, a full espresso bar, ice cream and gourmet milkshakes and wine and locally produced beer.

Meanwhile, we're now looking for the opening of Press Waffle's near neighbor, Central Arkansas' first outlet of Atlanta-based Original Hot Dog Factory, for the end of May, says owner-operator Devin Marcel. Check out the menu at theoriginalhotdogfactory.com.

Business section reporter Noel Oman spotted this recently filed Little Rock building permit for $96,000 worth of work on a restaurant at 2000 S. University Ave. It could be an outlet of Senor Tequila in that strip center; it could also be the now-vacant former Apple Spice Junction. There's a Papa John's in that center as well, but it does not fit the details, which include demolition of selected walls; work on ducts, wiring, ceiling tiles, new ceramic floor tiles and carpet and kitchen and restroom plumbing.

YGFBFKitchen Restaurant and Catering, which has been operating in Conway as a popular food truck, last week opened a restaurant at 800 Fourth Ave., Conway, with a grand opening on Friday. Maryann (the chef) and Trevon Leon are the owners; the website (YGFBFKitchen.com) touts "a unique fine-dining experience to diners with discerning tastes looking for an exceptional Southern & Cajun-inspired menu made with locally sourced ingredients." The alphabet soup is a reduction of "Your Girlfriend Best Friend," which is reflected in the URL of their Facebook page (facebook.com/YourGirlfriendBestFriendKitchen). Hours are 10 a.m.–2 p.m. Monday–Friday; Saturday hours vary "due to catering." The phone number is (501) 386-1688.

And "staffing issues" have forced the owners of McClard's Bar-B-Q to push back the opening, indefinitely, of its new Northwest Arkansas location, at 5001 W. Pauline Whitaker Parkway, Rogers — the first location outside of Hot Springs. The new restaurant, once it opens, will add "new features like brunch, a full bar and event catering" to the Hot Springs menu, which focuses on barbecue pulled pork, wet and dry ribs and Delta-style tamales. The restaurant phone number is (479) 202-4269; the website is mcclardsnwa.com.

Has a restaurant opened — or closed — near you in the last week or so? Does your favorite eatery have a new menu? Is there a new chef in charge? Drop us a line. Send email to: eharrison@adgnewsroom.com

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