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Dave's Place has been a downtown Little Rock lunch fixture for 18 years, 12 of them on Center Street between Second and Third, serving up consistently well-prepared large sandwiches, soups, salads and a few daily specials.
On Friday nights, when owner/chef Dave Williams presents several entree choices centered on a weekly theme, including Italian, Greek, French, German, Cajun and distinctly Arkansan, Dave's takes on a different feel and taste.
Lunch is crowded — the reason it has thrived while others around it have come and gone and proof Dave's is doing many things right. The restaurant also was filled to capacity on a recent Friday night, and our waitress — Dave's daughter — told us the home-cooking theme featured that evening usually draws the largest crowds.
For several reasons, we enjoyed our dinner experience at Dave's more than lunch. Dave does home cooking right; his pot roast was as good as it gets, a dozen medallions of savory, just-salty-enough, tender beef with soft, nicely browned carrots, onion and potato. (Dinner entrees are reasonable, usually $12-$15.)
A mega-bowl of chicken and dumplings was easily enough for two, the shredded breast slow-cooked to tender and teamed with hunks of dark meat. The substantial, firm dumplings were perfect comfort food fare, and the rich, thick broth with a nice dose of pepper brought it all together.
Along with the entrees, Dave's serves fabulous, yeasty rolls from Old Mill bakery that need no butter applied.
We enjoyed our opening course — very creamy tomato bisque that was rich in flavor — as well as our ender, the tart homemade key lime cheesecake, simultaneously rich and light. We weren't as enamored with the banana pudding, solid but uninspired, with a too high vanilla wafer-to-pudding ratio and little flavor to the pudding.
We arrived fairly late — 7:45 p.m., by which time Dave's had sold out of ribs.
Nighttime brings another difference: On Friday nights, Dave's son, Dave II, plays saxophone and leads a revolving cast of musicians in upbeat jazz that adds a festive atmosphere. At 9 p.m., when the restaurant closes, Dave brought out platters of the evening's entrees and the band loaded up their plates and sat down together to feast.
With large groups pulling several tables together, the hip jazz and the general good-times vibe, Dave's on Friday nights has the feel of a "scene" known only to some (until now, perhaps).
There's no band at lunch, so how could we like it as much? Again, the soup was strong, this time cream of asparagus (reasonably priced at $2.75 a cup and $3.50 a bowl), with plenty of pieces of asparagus (stalk, not tips, sorry to say) included. The broccoli cheese soup was a decent representation of a soup we think can never be a star.
The chicken salad ($6 for the plate) — served with cottage cheese, fruit (strawberry, apple, honeydew and orange) and a standard-issue blueberry muffin — is old school: shredded and dosed heavily with pickle relish vs. the trendier chunky/apple/nut variety. We weren't big on it, the pickle overpowering the other ingredients.
The Dave's Other Special is a turkey-and-pepper-jack-stacked sandwich served on dense, tasty cheese bread, also from Old Mill, served with a bag of Lay's. A half ($3.75) is plenty for most, but our companion is a trouper and plowed right through the whole ($6.50). It and the original Dave's Special (turkey and Swiss on spinach/feta bread) were long-time chalkboard specials that eventually graduated to the menu, saxophonist-by-night/waiter-by-day Dave II told us.
We also tried one of the lunch specials, chicken atop fettucine alfredo. The portions of each were more than ample, but the alfredo needed Parmesan, and the strips of chicken breast, though tender and moist, were in need of herbs and spices.
The only lunchtime dessert was chocolate chip cookies, and of course we were duty-bound to try them. We're guessing they're pre-made, but can't swear it; not that it really matters. They are baked to order and rich — five-inch diameter chocolate chippers that were just a bit too gooey. They could have used another 90 seconds in the oven.
Dave's Place is really two places in one — the solid, steady, somewhat predictable, low-key lunch favorite and the jazz-infused, menu-diverse, fun scene on Friday nights. Each understandably has many fans.