words: Dwain Hebda
images: Arshia Khan: South on Main, and Dwain Hebda
One of Little Rock’s oldest neighborhoods is the city’s newest place to be.
Along downtown Little Rock’s southern edge is Interstate 630, a tendon of six lanes of concrete that binds the eastern and western enclaves of the city.
For years, the Interstate marked the line between the haves and have-nots in Little Rock. Even though the area is peppered with hulking turn-of-the-century mansions and the city’s crowning gem, Little Rock Central High School, for many years life here has been the life of the city’s poor and disenfranchised, penned in by the highway and dire social and economic realities.
That was then; this is now. Today, South on Main (SOMA) is rapidly experiencing rebirth as one of the hippest neighborhoods in a city defined by its neighborhoods.
It’s a transformation that was unthinkable thirty years ago, when vanguard businesses such as Community Bakery, which has resided here since the 1950s, remember being wedged into a block that also included seedy bars and a peepshow.
Over the past two decades, Community Bakery, The Root Café and other early commercial interests became important litmus tests for the potential of the neighborhood, given the right product. And it was substantial. People came from all over the city to Community Bakery seeking fresh pastries and lined up into the The Root Café parking lot waiting for a burger. Visionary developers took notice of the luxury automobiles idling a few feet from the homeless’ shopping carts. City planners’ phones rang. Something was happening here.
The neighborhood got another boost with the buy local and foodie explosion. Authenticity and atmosphere were suddenly in high demand, and SOMA had that in spades. One by one, the ratty buildings lit up with new and interesting tenants including boutique retail and higher end antiques. New restaurants embraced the neighborhood’s vibe, leaving just enough grit to lend a patina to spaces that turned out some of the most interesting food in the city.
The crowds of millennial professionals, college students and even the stray young family who are drawn by the neighborhood’s charm and amenities are generally oblivious to the area’s sketchy past, and today the neighborhood has reached infill sufficient for a visitor to spend the better part of a day’s diversion here. And more is coming with planned mixed-use residential and retail projects in the wings. The snapshots that follow are but a slice of the attractions for an afternoon or a weekend in one of Little Rock’s most interesting neighborhoods.
South on Main
Chef Matt Bell and his wife Amy opened this relaxed, upscale gem as a restaurant and performance space in 2013. Since then, South on Main has been recognized as one of the best restaurants in the state and cited as one reason for Little Rock’s growing reputation among foodies. The seasonal menu rotates with the availability of ingredients, which Matt sources as locally as possible. His fresh take on traditional Southern fare – the trotters and the boiled peanuts head the list of owners’ favorites – always delivers the unexpected.
What Locals Know: Social Hour commences at 4pm. Tuesday through Saturday featuring the aforementioned boiled peanuts as free bar snacks. Order an Old Fashioned (the best in the South) and munch like a king.
South on Main
1304 South Main Street
501.244.9660 | southonmain.com
The Green Corner Store
The Green Corner Store is housed in the Lincoln Building of 1905, originally home to a drug wholesaler and this year listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The pharmacy is gone, but there’s plenty left behind that’s good for what ails you. Founder Shelley Green’s commitment to promoting green products is more than just a tagline – hers is the first and only eco-lifestyle retail store in Arkansas. It’s not every business that posts core values committed to the betterment of mankind on the wall, but The Green Corner Store does.
What Locals Know: The Green Corner Store takes the tradition of a general store a step further by hosting a variety of demonstrations on greener, cleaner living. The store is also the place for Arkies to find gifts that speak to their pride of place with the state’s iconic shape captured in pottery, soap, and cast on a variety of clothing items.
The Green Corner Store
1423 Main Street, Suite D
501.374.1111 | thegreencornerstore.com
One of the businesses that launched the neighborhood’s rebirth and one of the most familiar destinations for Little Rock residents, Community Bakery is a can’t-miss destination perched on the neighborhood’s gateway corner. At any time of day, Community Bakery welcomes a broad cross-section of the community from construction workers to college students, three-piece suits to sweatpants, first-name regulars to first-time visitors. Everything aligned in the massive display case is handmade daily in the cavernous bakery hidden behind the storefront – regularly voted Best Bakery in various polls. The café also offers breakfast and lunchtime sandwiches, salads and quiches. The Smoked Turkey and Goat Cheese Panini comes highly recommended.
What Locals Know: It is absolutely impossible to eat just one of Community Bakery’s iced sugar cookies. You’ve been warned.
1200 Main Street
501.375.6418 | communitybakery.com
The Root Cafe
The Root Café defies description as great food collides with eco-activism. Many places these days source their stuff more or less locally, but The Root draws 100 percent of its meat, eggs, and bread – and most of its produce – from Arkansas sources with names like Freckle Face Farms, Indian Bayou Rice and Tasty Acres. The space is tiny, but there’s garden and outdoor dining in nicer weather. Locals will stand the hour-long line for a Root Benny (eggs Benedict with a side of artisan ham), homemade buttermilk biscuits and sausage gravy or, contrary to the wide vegetarian/vegan-friendly menu, what many consider the best burger in the city.
What Locals Know: It’s strictly breakfast and lunch at The Root Café, so get there before mid-afternoon or go hungry. However, with a recent expansion, happy rumors have surfaced that dinner hours may be in the works.
The Root Café
1500 South Main Street
501.414.0423 | therootcafe.com
Moxy Modern Mercantile
The brainchild of husband-wife team Jon Estelita and Lara Kahler, Moxy is a funky boutique of reasonably-priced vintage furniture, witty new merchandise, and miscellany that you have to see to believe. You know that favorite coffee mug your dad carried around with him forever? Chances are they have it or a faithful reproduction. Maybe you need a security vest from the Apollo space program? Check. Derisive holiday partyware? Check. Classic vinyl or a life-sized wooden pig in socks? Double check. You get the idea. Jon said stores like this are common in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district where he grew up, but there’s nothing like it in Little Rock.
What Locals Know: Moxy is on the threshold of big things as it gets set to expand its square footage and retro furniture selection.
Moxy Modern Mercantile
1419 Main Street
501.374.2474 | facebook.com/moxymodernmercantile
A recent fire one door down put a scare in the spanking-new Raduno Brick Oven and Barroom, but to the owner’s relief the rustic, stylish space suffered only minor smoke damage. The news was equally well-received by the restaurant’s patrons who have grown rapidly since the place opened around Mardi Gras last year. Raduno, which in Italian loosely translates to a gathering of people in community, serves perfect crispy-chewy crust pizzas (get the Italian beef) and great sandwiches accompanied by the excellent house-made tomato bisque soup to make a relaxed lunch or dinner with friends. While you’re there be sure to sample the wine list or try a draw from the fine selection of regional brews as you sit on the front deck and watch the world go by.
What Locals Know: Brunch is a hidden gem at Raduno, both for the food and the eye-opener specialty drinks. Management has also hinted at special doin’s for Mardi Gras to celebrate the restaurant’s birthday.
1318 Main Street, Suite 100
501.374.7476 | radunolr.com
No trip to SOMA, or Little Rock for that matter, is complete without a visit to Loblolly Creamery. This little home-grown spot carries the city’s favorite ice cream handmade in small batches using fresh and whenever possible, local ingredients. Virtually everything Loblolly carries (save some sprinkles) is sourced and produced the same way, from the waffle cones to the syrups used in their sodas to the baked goods sold at the marble counter of the antique soda fountain they call home. Speaking of which, Loblolly is currently inside The Green Corner Store, but in January will move to their own digs next door.
What Locals Know: The salted caramel ice cream is practically the city’s mascot flavor; Loblolly dips about eighteen gallons worth in the soda fountain alone. Also, shop the store at Christmas to enjoy the best hot chocolate in all the land.
Inside The Green Corner Store & Soda Fountain
1423 South Main Street
501.396.9609 | loblollycreamery.com