If you want to be privy to the real core of a bar, the proper personality of any greasy roadhouse, chic cocktailery or straight-up beer joint, sidestep the night scene. That's when fickle bar hoppers hop to and from whatever place fits the night's fancy. Don't assume you can find a bar's purest traits when the sun's out, either. "Day crews," as they're called, have a reputation of taking to the linoleum in a half surly slouch of prolonged boredom. But between those two poles, when the work day's over and a barstool offers the regulars an air-conditioned respite from the traffic grind — that's when you get to know a bar.
For this issue, we checked out the drinks, food, games and regulars at Town Pump, Senor Tequila's, The Fountain and Capi's, four of Little Rock's favorite happy hour holes.
Capi's Squeezed into the bustle of Pleasant Ridge Town Center, Capi's is by far the most lavish of the bunch with its broad, tall ceilings and West Little Rock shininess. It also has the earliest of happy hours, starting at 3 p.m. and wrapping up at 6 p.m. When we arrived around 3:30 p.m., the place was empty, save a two-top snacking on the shaded patio and a chef occasionally poking her head out of the kitchen, so we posted up, solo, at the eight-seat bar. The $1 off beers and glasses of wine was appealing, but the sunny afternoon called for an old fashioned (cocktails are $5.50, usually $7.50), that bourbon/bitters/fruit muddle classic. The bartender — an affable bar veteran — said it was his first time to make one in years. He could have fooled me. The cocktail was portioned just right, made with their house bourbon, an Old Charter 8-year. After talking about a featured wine, he poured a healthy glass of Riesling, gratis. Consider this a perfect place to get a good, decently priced drink or two before dinner at one of the shopping center's restaurants.
Senor Tequila It's pretty low on the local Mexican food chain, but Senor T's is quick, tasty, affordable and holds a fond place in our hearts. We're regulars at the Rodney Parham location — the beef chimichanga and tall beer is a perfect treat on a rough day — but this time, it was time to mix up ol' trusty and throw ice, salt and lime into the equation for un hora de margaritas. After all, they're notorious for their $2 top shelf 'ritas, served during their 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. happy hour. It's a Jekyll and Hyde brew that'll turn a ruler-wielding nun into a sailor-mouthed ne'er-do-well in two glasses, flat. Yeah, they're strong. That is, they're strong in that margarita mix is a brawny, thick brew of viscous, mouth-puckering tart that covered up any trace of particular tequila. Top shelf, bottom shelf, 87 octane, we wouldn't be able to tell the difference for the mix. The biggest surprise, however, came when we paid our tab and found out the $2 margaritas the waiter offered magically became a $3.50 a pop endeavor. Sure, Arkansas's liquor tax is the highest in the country, but 75% it ain't. We've heard things about the Senor's clever accounting here and there, but this is the first time we've run into it. Next time — this evening, in fact — we're sticking with Mexican beer ($1.50 during happy hour).
Town Pump Save for the new flat screens hung on the wall and on a constant stream of ESPN, the Town Pump happy hour vibe has gone unchanged for years, decades maybe. And when it's happy hour between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m., it's a thing to see: a true-life "Cheers" crew of regulars, stationed behind longnecks, shooting — no, blasting — the bull with any and everyone with the tongue to shoot back. Without a doubt, it's an epitome of an unassuming bar colored by its regulars instead of cheap, goofy ephemera bolted into the wall. No doubt the drinks are cheap with $1 off wells and 50 cents off beers — $1 cans of Pabst are a favorite — but the food is bar food at its greasy, carbo-bombed finest. The Pump Burger should get the keys to the city, the onion rings actually taste of onion instead of deep-fried un-onion and, shockingly enough, the veggie burger is our favorite in town — it has to be one of the unhealthiest in all of Little Rock, too. If you see us there, feel free to challenge our ultimate supremacy over the shuffleboard table. We wager shots.
The Fountain No liquor here. Cigarette smoke, pool and shuffleboard tables and Leonard Cohen growling over the speakers, yes, but look elsewhere for a shot. Maybe the carcinogens and lack of bronze still-made liquids are one of the reasons folks are divided on The Fountain. But we've always had a soft spot for the bar's ability to mix wine-bar urbaneness with a lived-in neighborhood charm. The porch, with its scenic view of, well, Kroger, always draws us toward the back during happy hour. Heck, the multi-leveled, raised platform may actually be the best view in town for people-watchers, offering a great place to camp out and watch the after-work shoppers tackle the bustle of an early evening grocery. You can kick back between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. with frosty mugs of $2 domestic drafts or $2.50 draws of Shock Top, the summery, Belgian white, usually served with an orange slice.