Life’s a funny old thing, full of unexpected twists and turns. For instance, who knew just a few years ago, that the city of Little Rock, Arkansas would become one of my most regular travel destinations?
But unexpected things like that can happen to you when Little Rock ends up as your in-laws’ home town (how that came to pass is another story altogether).
And, as it happens, and contrary to nearly everything I’d been led to expect from its hillbilly caricature, Little Rock turned out to be an agreeable and welcoming town.
Bisected north from south by the Arkansas River, the city is unusually contained by American standards, surrounded as it is on most sides by wooded hills. The downtown area is on a reassuringly human scale for European sensibilities, and fairly pleasant to stroll around. The Arkansas State Capitol building (a virtual, smaller replica of the Capitol in DC) and the Old State House are both highly photogenic, and with its river walks, river market, excellent Historic Arkansas Museum and the Clinton Library, there’s enough to keep the average traveller interested for a day or two. Moreover, easy road access to the stunning Ouachita Forest and Lake, not to mention the nearby Hot Springs resort ensures that there’s plenty on offer for lovers of the American big outdoors.
And if all this weren’t sufficient reason for visiting then I should also mention that Little Rock has a rather special hotel; The Capital…
Ask the average Brit to name an iconic American hotel / city synonymy, the one that they would probably first think of would be the Waldorf Astoria / New York City. Asked to name another, they could then suggest the Beverly Hills / Los Angeles. If they were more than usually informed they would even be able to list a few more, such as the Biltmore / Miami, the Monteleone / New Orleans or the del Coronado / San Diego (of Some Like it Hot fame).
In fact just about every US city, large and small, from Spokane in the north to El Paso in the south has an iconic hotel that reflects the spirit, texture, and the history of the host town.
And as it turns out, Little Rock is no different.
Entering the Capital Hotel is the epitome of that cliché, entering a different world. More Claridges than Dorchester (for the benefit of my British readers), it’s an oasis of 19th century, understated grandness and subtle, tasteful decor. From its colonnaded, high ceilinged foyer to its immaculately appointed rooms and suites, the Capital offers an exceptionally comfortable experience embellished by flawlessly competent and courteous service.
In fact, the service at the Capital is worthy of special mention, for it somehow pulls off genuine southern charm without being gushing or over-the-top. So much of north American Hotel and restaurant service these days, and not merely in the South , is so intensely “friendly” and overly attentive, to non-Americans at least, it often feels more like your being dared or challenged not to have a good time. But, under the skilled guidance of its genial and dapper manager, Michael Chaffin, the staff at the Capital, exude the kind of confidence and assuredness that guarantees those fortunate enough to stay there the feeling of being sincerely valued and cared for.
Like all great American Hotels the Capital takes its restaurant and particularly its bars very seriously. So, it’s hardly a surprise that its main bar — the stylish-yet-business-like Capital Bar and Grill — is the place to be seen for anyone who is anyone in Little Rock; from brunching politicians to lunching celebrities to cocktail sipping businessmen and women. A solid, reasonably-priced menu of both typical, and not-so-typical bar snacks and entrees, plus a well-stocked bar, all contained within a relaxed, informal ambiance (often enhanced by a live jazz trio) make the bar a must-visit, even for non-guests of the hotel.
One Eleven at the Capital constitutes the hotel’s main restaurant and doubles up in the morning as the breakfast dining room. It also has its own, beautifully elegant bar manned by seriously skilled and intuitive bartenders whose cocktails are simply fabulous. (They even stock Lillet Blonde aperitif for those brave enough to try an authentic Vespa (a la Casino Royale).
Formally known as Ashley’s, the recently re-vamped restaurant itself now has a Michelin decorated French chef whose menu reflects a noble intention to bring his native expertise to local raw materials. And for the most part he succeeds brilliantly — the shrimp (prawns) and grits for example were an orgasmic revelation and worth a trip to Little Rock all on their own. However, even where the dishes don’t quite attain this kind of sublime perfection, everything we sampled was at the very least, delicious and perfectly cooked. Moreover, the Capital has a vast cellar, stocked with plenty of fine wines to match the quality of the food.
All in all then, a stay at the Capital Hotel — even if only for one night — is an experience worth saving for and sufficient reason in itself to visit Little Rock.
When I started this blog the only thing I ever meant to advertise was my own books. But, our experiences over the past few years at the Capital have been so pleasurable that I felt it was about time I let the world know about this southern gem of a hotel.