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The corner of Cumberland and President Clinton Ave., easily one of the busiest in Little Rock, has been a mixed bag for restaurants (it's also long been across the parking lot from the Times HQ). Cafe St. Moritz lunched ladies for years. The French Brasserie Velo Rouge didn't even make it one. Velo Rouge's predecessor Nu never got old.
So it was with not a little anticipation (and concern) that we hiked across the way to sample Big Whiskey's American Bar & Grill.
It's with relief that we can report: We arrived famished and left stuffed to capacity. The bill didn't give us a heart attack either.
The first franchise of a popular Springfield, Mo. restaurant, Big Whiskey's comes to Little Rock thanks to young restaurateur/bar owner Daniel Bryant and the folks who own Flying Burrito, Ernie Biggs and the Fountain, all of which seem to be thriving. We'd be shocked if this one doesn't follow suit.
It's got all the accoutrements of a modern pub — more flat screen TVs than we could count, whiskey on tap, boneless wings — plus all the traditional grease and beer that River Market district revelers and convention-goers can't get enough of.
There are, of course, start-up jitters. Early take-out orders included a barbecue burger served without the barbecue sauce, wings without dipping sauce and queso that defied laws of gravity. Once we arrived for a sit-down lunch, several menu items and flavored lemonades weren't available.
But Whiskey's did have Gardettos, which come complimentary with drink orders. There's probably nothing better to eat with a medium dark beer than those little pretzels, bread-sticks and rye chips. To supplement that, our group sampled a very good spicy white spinach dip queso, topped with shredded Parmesan strings and a few diced tomatoes. Additional appetizers include beef or chicken nachos, quesadillas, veggie platters, jalepeno poppers, potato skins and a cream cheese blend with chicken and buffalo sauce.
Lest they scare away the cholesterol averse, Big Whiskey's offers soups, salads and a fully loaded spud, and a daily special ($5.49) that pairs half of a club sandwich with your choice of soup or salad. But we were interested in a meal to stick to the ribs.
The menu lives up to its name. Like wings? Whiskey's offers the boneless variety we mentioned earlier in amounts from six to 24, with nine sauce options. Entrees include New York Strip, center cut sirloin and bleu cheese strip steaks ($12-$16) as well as ribs, shrimp platters and kabobs.
Of the five-burger options, one dining mate chose the Big Whiskey BBQ. A fat, loaded piece of work it was, and with a tasty sweet sauce.
None of us chose a pasta dish, but the selections are worth mentioning. Bacon Chicken Ranch Alfredo, Chicken Pepperoni, Broccoli Chicken Alfredo and Pesto Shrimp Linguini all looked inviting, and ranged from $9.99 to $10.99.
The Zesty Guacamole Chicken Sandwich lured a cohort with its combination of a grilled chicken breast with jalapeno-smoked bacon, lettuce, tomato and provolone cheese, drizzled with a creamy guacamole-ranch sauce served on basil focaccia bread. Unfortunately, the bacon, although thick and lean, had not even a hint of smoke to it, nor was there much zest to the guac.
Another sampled the Rueben and reported the corned beef could have been sliced a bit thinner to prevent the whole portion from exiting the bread. It was otherwise fine, with choice toasted rye and the right amount of kraut and dressing.
Another two of us ordered wraps, the buffalo chicken and the chicken spinach dip. The buffalo was solid, not spectacular, but the spinach dip wrap has potential. Others include the portabella mushroom wrapper and chicken queso wrapper, all for $7.99, including fries, which were well-seasoned and thick.
Our waiter took great care of us. Drinks were refilled in a timely manner, food was promptly delivered and an incorrect order was corrected quickly. Bonus points for service.
Atmospherically, Big Whiskey's is roomy, but still relatively cozy and oozes potential to become a popular happy hour spot. The U-shaped bar, dark stained wood and high ceilings give it a homey vibe. Also worth mentioning is that despite the hard floor, high ceilings and a heavy head count, it wasn't too loud for conversation. High seating along sidewalk windows was a wise design choice, as diners are spared the eye-level positioning of the rear ends of passersby.
Big Whiskey's has the potential for a long life. Unlike its deceased predecessor, it's certainly not overpriced. Its menu design does separate it from most surrounding River Market district joints. The endless parking famine could deter some, but there's always foot traffic.
Big Whiskey's American
Bar & Grill
225 E. Markham St.
A wide menu selection of steaks, pasta, burgers, entrees, soups, salads served in ample portions and with reasonable pricing and a laid-back atmosphere.
11 a.m. until midnight Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Friday, 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Saturday and 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Sunday.
Half-priced drafts and appetizers during happy hour, 4-6 p.m. Monday through Friday.