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Little Rock and Roll

By Hunter Slaton
updated February 21, 2017
Opening November 18, the Clinton Presidential library has put a spring in the step of this once-sleepy Arkansas city

Love him or hate him, Bill Clinton blended the old and new South better than anyone else we're likely to see. He's an Arkansas-bred boy who was real enough to pass as a Bubba and slick enough to rule in Washington, D.C. Now he's bringing the world to his former stomping ground of Little Rock in the form of the $165 million glass-and-steel William J. Clinton Presidential Center.

At 20,000 square feet, the Clinton Center will hold the largest collection of presidential materials. (It contains 2 million photos alone.) The boxy, modernist main building is cantilevered over the Arkansas River from the southern riverbank, and the adjacent Rock Island Railroad Bridge, abandoned in 1980, has been pressed into service as a walkway. Within the center's 30-acre park is the new Clinton School of Public Service, a graduate school that's part of the University of Arkansas and housed in the recently rehabbed 1899 Choctaw Railroad station. Just down the road--President Clinton Avenue, to be precise--is where Heifer, which for 60 years has given farm animals to needy families worldwide, is building its eco-friendly Heifer International Global Village partly out of steel beams and concrete from existing railroad structures. The $13.9 million headquarters opens in fall 2005; the charity plans to turn it into a tourist attraction educating visitors about world hunger.

Little Rock still prides itself on that tried-and-true Southern tradition, eating. Just over a decade ago the toughest choice on a Friday night was between Chili's or Bennigan's; the city now serves everything from New American to, as Loca Luna owner and chef Mark Abernathy describes the food at his place, Nouveau Schizophrenic. Loca Luna's grilled salmon with cranberry-orange-chipotle sauce is a standout dish. The city's deep-fried roots remain, though, especially when it comes to slow-smoked pit barbecue. Everyone in town has a favorite joint, but one of the undeniable top spots is Sim's Bar-B-Que, where fans run the gamut from suit-and-tie politicos to jeans-wearing construction workers.

Since the mid-'90s, the River Market District, a stretch of restaurants and clubs, has grown to become the epicenter of Little Rock nightlife. Crowds lift a few pints at The Underground Pub (a spacious English-style ale house) and carouse at Sticky Fingerz Rock 'n' Roll Chicken Shack. The Heights, a venerable neighborhood four miles west, has one of the city's most convivial old-style local bars, called Afterthought. Mondays are devoted to jazz, and the rest of the week there's dancing to standards and blues.

In a sure sign of newfound confidence, Little Rock now has a hip lodging in the River Market Lofts, a factory converted to upmarket apartments, eight of which are available by the night. The decor is Ikea-esque, and each loft has a full kitchen; they're within walking distance of the Clinton Center. The historic Quapaw Quarter--south of the River Market--contains the city's oldest homes, some dating to before the Civil War. A converted late-1800s mansion, the genteel Rosemont Bed & Breakfast has five guest rooms with plush armchairs, gauzy curtains, and, in most, fireplaces and four-poster beds. Out front there's a shaded porch, perfect for relaxing in a rocking chair while the fall leaves stir in the breeze. It's an experience that the new Little Rock has yet to top.

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