If there’s a single restaurant in Little Rock that attracts the political and business elite, it’s the Capital Bar and Grill in the Capital Hotel. For years, the restaurant has served as a watering hole where Little Rock’s “who’s who” have come to see and be seen. And Capital Bar and Grill has served its customers well over the years, garnering a loyal following for both its classical cocktail offerings and its distinctive menu, which features Arkansas favorites and traditional Southern fare.
It’s impossible to ignore the class that Capital Bar and Grill conveys. Part of that stems from the ambiance of the Capital Hotel. From the moment you walk in the door (which was likely held open for you), the historic, decadent setting provides a constant backdrop for both dining and hotel customers. Sitting down at Capital Bar and Grill, you’ll notice the dining room’s rich wood and deep colors, which are well lit by the long windows overlooking West Markham St. The smartly dressed wait staff is relaxed but respectful, with the appropriate “yes sir” and “yes ma’am” responses coming frequently during the meal. It’s a style that reminds you of old luxury, yet still manages to feel fresh.
And for the most part, a recent lunch at Capital Bar and Grill was as good as the atmosphere. The lunch menu has no appetizers listed, but our server suggested a couple, and we went with the Pimento Cheese with House-Made Soda Crackers ($8). The large-curd cheese and pimentos were framed with a delicate mayonnaise mixture that was both creamy and light. The smoked paprika on top gave the dish a good amount of earthiness, and while the crisps served beside the cheese were perhaps too thin, the appetizer was a success. It’s easy to see why it’s such a popular plate with regulars.
Lunch itself, however, was a mixed bag. On the one hand, my tablemate’s Cuban sandwich ($12) was very good. Slow-roasted pork and smoked ham are topped with Gruyere, one of my favorite cheeses for melting. The kicker was a perfect layer of mustard and some house-made pickles, which were both bright and sharp, and provided a definite contrast to the heavier proteins. The sandwich is pressed, which gives the excellent bread a welcome crunch. My friend chose to pair the sandwich with the Chicken and Andouille Gumbo ($7/$9), which also proved a good choice. The spice and depth of the gumbo was the answer to a chilly winter day without being too weighty.
The problem came with my entrée, listed on the menu simply as The Burger ($14). I added the house-cured bacon ($2), knowing how good it was from previous visits. I ordered the burger medium. What came to the table was not medium or good. In fact, it was certainly a bad burger, one that the kitchen had cooked past well done into burnt territory. The taste of overly charred meat dominated everything about the plate, even making the delicious bacon hard to distinguish. I’ve cooked and eaten many burgers in my life. That burger was on the heat a good 7-8 minutes too long.
It’s never a good thing to serve burned food, but it’s even worse when that plate is your calling card. One could argue that The Burger is the signature entrée at the Capital Bar and Grill, yet what I had was pretty disastrous. It’s especially bad when you think of how many restaurants in this city are doing excellent burgers at a better price than the $16 I put down for this one. That can’t happen. Hopefully, this was just a one-time problem, but it will take me a little time to get past it and try this dish again.
Still, even with my poor entrée, I would recommend Capital Bar and Grill for people looking for a classy business lunch option. One bad dish doesn’t cancel out the high-quality service, the swanky atmosphere and the other solid plates brought to the table. It’s a concern when your most popular dish misfires this badly, but don’t let that put you off giving this Little Rock institution a shot. There are still plenty of things to like.
111. W. Markham St., Little Rock
Hours: Monday to Friday, 11 a.m.–11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.–midnight; Sunday, 11 a.m.–10 p.m.