There are older bars in Little Rock. Certainly prettier ones. Bars with better sound systems, better acoustics. Bigger crowds. Most definitely wider drink menus. But no bar in Little Rock — hell, probably in the entire state — is as storied as White Water Tavern, this year's Toast of the Town winner for Best Bar.
Don't believe me? Read on as the people who shaped the bar over the years narrate its history in their own words.
James "Jet" Talbert (regular, sometime door man): I started coming here in 1971 back when it was called The Pitcher — it was The Pitcher going all the way back to the '40s. It was a beer joint then, and back in the early '70s, beer joints were redneck joints.
Paul Black (original co-owner): I was waiting tables at TGI Friday's when me and Mike Galbraith decided to lease the bar in September of 1976.
We were both into whitewater paddling. We had our first meeting with our lawyer to incorporate the business, and he was a big paddling guy and a kayaker, too. We were just sitting around having a couple of beers — maybe more — and the "White Water Tavern" came out of it. The old canoe that's still hanging in there now was our canoe.
At first we just served beer. At one time, we were the number one on-premise beer sales in the state, and the building was less than 1,500 square feet. They had people come down from the breweries to try to figure out what the hell we were doing to sell that much package beer.
Our big deal was bottlenecks. That was one of our demands from the distributors. We were environmental types, so the returnable bottles were a big deal.
When we opened up, Michael and I spent every dime we had, and we had $175 dollars left over for the first night when we opened. And we bought beer. The next night we had $350 left over. And we bought beer.
We had a lot of bikers, a lot of doctors, a lot of lawyers. The Clinton crowd. And quite a few med students, newspaper people and advertising people.
We never had the hardcore Bandidos [Motorcycle Club]. But we had the independents. Boy, if I ever got in a fight, those boys were right behind me. It was a pretty good safety blanket.
Matt White (current co-owner): Last year, Davis Clement, who was cooking for us at the time, and I met Bill Clinton at Vino's. As he's leaving, Davis said to him, "Hey Mr. President, you should come eat lunch tomorrow at the White Water Tavern." Clinton stopped and put his hand on Davis' shoulder and said, "You guys still open down there? When I was attorney general, I used to tell my staff if they worked hard all week, on Friday we'd go down to the White Water Tavern for a three-hour lunch."
Talbert: When Paul Black and them took over the crowd all became hippies. In the mid- to late-'70s the rock 'n' roll era, locally, exploded. Greasy Greens, Cornbread, The Cate Brothers, Burger, Sweet Magnolia — they all played White Water.
Black: We were basically doing music similar to what they do now. Back in those days, we called it the White Water Shuffle. It would be so crowded you had to shuffle around to get between people.
Larry "Goose" Garrison (former owner, current land owner): I started out by opening Slick Willy's in the train station in September of '77. I sold Slick Willy's in December of '79. A week later I bought into White Water. Originally, a double door where the kitchen is now faced Seventh Street. Inside, there was black and white tile on the floor. Where the bar is now, there were booths, and up against the wall, an old potbelly stove. The bathrooms were about the size of a phone booth. And there was a pinball room and shuffleboard — the current bar is the old shuffleboard top.
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