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If you’re looking to explore one new city within the U.S. this year, I have several suggestions with Little Rock at the top of the list. Known in the past to grab the national spotlight for several events, including the Little Rock Nine and Little Rock Crisis at the then-segregated Little Rock Central High School in 1957, Arkansas’s capital is experiencing a period of reinvention, making it a city of the South to keep your eyes on.
Just last year, the people of Little Rock elected its first Black mayor, Frank Scott Jr., who took office igniting hope and unity among residents. “We are definitely a growing city and one of the great cities of the South. One of the things that I want to do because we have certain perceptions until you come here from a safety perspective and our civil rights past, that I want to make certain that while we will always acknowledge our past, we will focus on our present and create a better future,” says Scott.
Growing up in southwest Little Rock, Scott said he was raised by parents whom he says “made certain we didn’t realize how poor we were.” He left for Tennessee to attend the University of Memphis before returning home. From corporate to state politics and back to corporate, Scott eventually knew where he truly wanted to make a difference.
“I wanted to get back to my home town and help focus on unifying our city, moving it from being disconnected to connected,” says Scott. He won the mayoral runoff election with 58% of the votes.
Family Will Bring Them Home
Scott is not the only native to leave Little Rock, only to return because “it’s home.” Chef Tim Morton grew up in a family rooted in the city’s food and social culture. His grandmother owned a successful catering business that boasted a clientele roster of some of the who’s who in Little Rock.
His aunt, chef Evette Brady, also followed a culinary path going to school in Wisconsin and later returning to work in fine dining before owning a restaurant of her own. Honing his own culinary skills from a young age, Morton completed culinary school in Atlanta and returned after his aunt purchased 1620 Restaurant.
Together with partners, Morton purchased the restaurant from her and changed the name to 1620 Savor, which closed its doors in 2016 after 25 years. Today, Morton is following in his grandmother’s footsteps also running a catering business for high-end clients.
When asked about what he has been witnessing over the years within the city, he says, “I think we are growing. Growing in a way that is good. There are some issues that still need to be panned out.” This is true of any city reinventing itself. He also notes that several business opportunities are opening up that were not previously.
In addition, Morton shares that Black families are moving back, which is a testament to the city’s vitality.
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Also seeing the return of families to neighborhoods that were once predominately occupied by Blacks is fashion designer Korto Momolu. Born in Liberia and raised in Canada, Momolu has called Little Rock home for 19 years since meeting her husband and relocating. Over the years, she has carved her own creative space in Little Rock running a successful business where her collections are sold around town including at the Clinton Presidential Center as well as online.
“Little Rock is a small city, but it is great for when you are raising a family and trying to be in the workforce. It offers a great balance because it is not really a fast-moving growth,” says the “Project Runway” season five contestant. As a long-time resident, she says she is starting to see perks that you would generally see in big cities such as the scooters that seem to be on every sidewalk. She also says there is a noticeable focus on tourism.
Welcome to Little Rock
Nothing beats directly asking a local what to do and where to go for some good eats when looking to have a true Little Rock experience. While visiting last fall, I was able to experience some of the highlights that confirmed my decision to return one day.
“As Arkansas’ capital city, Little Rock serves as the largest hub for tourism. In recent years, we have experienced a renaissance, with growth and product development in every corner of the city. Downtown districts have been revitalized, breathing new life into neighborhoods,” says Gretchen Hall, Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau President and CEO.
“Our culinary scene has ignited with a wide range of cuisines, craft breweries, an internationally-acclaimed distillery and artisan specialty shops.”
Between Scott, Morton, Momolu and Hall, get ready to experience Little Rock like you’ve never imagined. When planning your trip, be sure to include some if not all of these experiences while there.
The recommendations from Scott alone, a self-proclaimed foodie, will have you noshing through every pocket of Little Rock. However, to narrow it down to the city’s highlights, here is what everyone had to say collectively.
- Lassis Inn – A staple in the city not to pass up, the catfish and buffalo ribs (fish) are the talk of the town.
- Sim’s BBQ – You know it is good when everyone names Sim’s the king of barbecue in Little Rock.
- Cajun’s Wharf – Come for great food and drinks and stay for the entertainment. Savor your time with a Play-De-Do mason jar keepsake after sipping on the mystery concoction that only the owners know.
- Copper Grill – The downtown restaurant is the perfect choice for food enthusiasts.
- The River Market District – Little Rock’s growing diverse food scene comes alive with more than 20 restaurants to satisfy your taste buds’ desires.
- Brewster’s II Soul Food Lounge & Café – A favorite of Morton’s, Eric Woods is responsible for providing some of the city’s best soul food.
- Ceci’s Chicken & Waffles – The five-star reviews plus mouthwatering photos are a clear indication that you’re missing out if you pass this spot by. Momolu loves Ceci’s for the salads.
- David Family Kitchen – Scott didn’t hesitate to list this one as a favorite for more than one reason and seems he is not alone.
- One Eleven – A great fine dining option at the Capital Hotel offering American cuisine with a French twist. A great spot for drinks with an expansive wine list.
- The Root Café – One of my personal favorites for breakfast focused on local food (a growing movement in Arkansas) and community.
- K. Hall & Sons Produce – Another family-owned business offering everything from unique produce to deli sandwiches, baked goods and more. It is a lesser known gem that when you discover it, you’re a customer for life.
What to Do
With a diverse list of attractions, Little Rock has something for the entire family. With an average resident age of 36 and a growing Millennial population, Scott says it is important to have experiences that create a quality of life for everyone.
Attractions for your itinerary include:
- The Clinton Presidential Center – Learn more about the life and presidency of Bill Clinton before grabbing a bite to eat at 42 Bar and Table.
- Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site – Now one of the most revered schools in the city and state, take a tour of the campus including the gas station across the street where the media was known to be on standby for updates as the Little Rock Nine made their way into the school.
- Heifer International Global Village and Urban Farm – Headquartered in Little Rock, the organization is helping families around the world end hunger and poverty.
- ESSE Purse Museum – As one of three purse museums in the world, pace yourself as you enjoy the contemplative portrayal of women over the years.
- Little Rock Parks – Experience nature at its finest with a bike ride or walk on more than ten trails.
- 9th Street – Once a thriving cultural mecca for Blacks and Black-owned businesses and churches including the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, the area was an entertainment hub for artists such as Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington.
- Civil Rights Heritage Trail – With six destinations to visit along the trail, including the Daisy Bates House, Mosaic Templars Cultural Center and Little Rock Central High School, spend a day discovering Little Rock’s powerful impact on the country.
- Outlets at Little Rock – Home to the state’s only outlet mall, be sure to save a little room in your suitcase in case you want to shop at the more than 70 stores.
When it comes to events, there are a few that are putting Little Rock on the map. The World Cheese Dip Championship is a gooey love fest as everyone walks around with tin muffin pans dipping chips for hours before casting a vote. Taking place every October, it is a fun event where the entire family can get involved.
However, if you are looking to kick off your Little Rock visit off earlier, Momolu suggests the city’s Africa Day Fest in May over Memorial Day weekend. The free event celebrates African culture through food, art, fashion and performances.
If you convinced now that there is more to Little Rock than meets the eye, the next step is to see it for yourself. It is just beginning for the Southern capital that is reinventing itself day by day and year by year. For those who may have moved on, leaving Little Rock in what they feel is their past, Scott has a special message. “Little Rock has so much potential. We have a city that is growing and we want them to come back home and to come back home now.”