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Take me out to the bistro 

Valentine’s emphasizes reasonable wine prices and upscale ballpark dining.

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Chicago has Ditka's. Toronto has Gretzky's. Miami has Shula's. Aurora, Ill., has Mikita's. But Central Arkansas has long been deprived a sports celebrity restaurant — at least until last year, when Valentine's opened in the new Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock.

“An architect came in — his thoughts were that all cities had restaurants with a sports figure,” said Bill Valentine, longtime general manager of the Arkansas Travelers and namesake of the high-end restaurant. “In Little Rock, although you've had had great players like Brooks Robinson, there's none. They say people will go to restaurants like this.”

And so they have. Valentine said that the operation is profitable after its first year — rare for an infant restaurant — and riding on the success of largely positive reviews. Now he will have an extra blue ribbon to hang on the wall: Arkansas Times readers have named Valentine's the state's best new restaurant.

The concept arose as Valentine discussed plans for the new Travelers stadium with North Little Rock officials. “When we built the ballpark, Mayor Hays said it would be a shame to build something for $40 million and then only be open 70 days a year,” Valentine said.

But while the city wanted something in the space, the last thing it envisioned was a restaurant. A number of officials who consulted with Valentine had lost money on restaurants before and considered a ballpark bistro an unwise investment. But Valentine got the idea into his head and was persistent. “I said to them, if you've got good food and wonderful wine prices, people will find you.”

It didn't hurt that its location in Dickey-Stephens allows the restaurant to avoid the burden of rent overhead. Although Bill Valentine has a passion for dining, he said he wouldn't have started the venture if he didn't have the stadium space in which to do it.

That the dining be upscale was a condition of opening the restaurant. “My thoughts were let's go with a first class restaurant, not just a pub,” Valentine said. To ensure the quality of the food, Valentine enlisted the help of Scott McGehee, owner of Boulevard Bread. Taking inspiration from his travels to Tuscany, McGehee drew up the Italian menu. The dishes range from a specially prepared lasagna to mussels from Prince Edward's Island to halibut that is flown in fresh weekly.

McGehee is the executive chef, but he has now taken a reduced role in the kitchen. All the restaurant's staff have worked with McGehee in the past, including head chef John Beachboard, who had been with him for five-and-a-half years before coming to Valentine's.

Valentine created the extensive wine list himself. An enthusiast who has had a cellar for over 30 years and estimates his personal collection at 500 bottles, Valentine waxes passionate when it comes to wine — particularly how it's sold in restaurants.

“The trend in restaurants for years has been to do a good markup on the wine, because the average person has no idea what a wine costs,” Valentine said. “That's a pet peeve of mine. Why does a $50 bottle of wine have to go on somebody's wine list at $150 to $200? I know that you have to make up some of your money, but it just doesn't make sense.”

Besides his concern to keep prices within reason — he said he doesn't mark up bottles more than $25 dollars above retail price — Valentine also wants to expose people to new types of fine wine. He has a policy that you can taste any bottle of upscale wine on the list. Only once has a party rejected the bottle. When that happens, Valentine drinks it with his staff as a refresher on the qualities of the wine.

Valentine admits that it was something of a risk to put a high-end restaurant in a baseball stadium, where Polish sausage is more the norm than beef carpaccio. But the 62-seat dining room has been a versatile complement to the ballpark. When the field lights are off, the space is an isolated dining area; when the Travelers are playing, the game is just a few feet away; when there's a major televised sporting event, the restaurant hosts dining on the concourse and shows the action on the Dickey-Stephens jumbotron.

Whatever the setting, there are always two constants at Valentine's: one of the city's best views of the Little Rock skyline and Bill Valentine himself. Even if he's not in the dining room in person — and he often is, since his office is just across the field — the walls are adorned with pictures from his umpire days that depict his tempestuous relationship with base runners. “My wife went in before it opened and said, ‘This is no restaurant — this is a shrine!' ” Valentine said. “When we opened that restaurant, I never thought Bill Valentine was going to be in that restaurant every night.”

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