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There's only two kinds of service you remember when you leave a restaurant. The first is horrible service, server-on-a-bad-day service, "May I speak to a manager?" service. The other is the flip side of that: service so good it makes you leave feeling like you've made a friend instead of somebody to tip. Both of those (thankfully, in the case of the former) are rare. Rarer still, however, is service so good that people speak as much about it as they do the food.
That's often the case, however, with Sami Lal, the owner of Little Rock's Star of India. With a relentlessly buoyant personality and a photographic memory of the names and personal details of his repeat customers, Lal has made a name for himself as one of the nicest guys in the Little Rock restaurant world, a trait that keeps folks coming back to his little home away from home.
Born in India north of Punjab, near the famed Golden Temple, Lal has been in the restaurant business since 1973, starting out supervising a continental cuisine restaurant in West Germany. He eventually moved to Dallas, working in restaurants there for several years before coming to Little Rock to start Star of India. It's been in the same location, in Westchase Plaza at 301 N. Shackleford Road, since 1993. Cozy and fragrant with spices, the restaurant is a longtime favorite of James Drinkwater, who was dining at the Star of India lunch buffet with his wife, Kina, on a recent Friday. James said they drive there from Conway three times a week for the food and Lal's hospitality.
"He's very friendly," Drinkwater said. "He's just like family. Sami is truly five-star. You don't get better service. ... The attentiveness to the table, greeting you at the door, there's absolutely no difference, other than that Sami is probably happier than any greeter at a five-star restaurant." Drinkwater said Star of India is his favorite Indian food in Arkansas. He'd never tried Indian cuisine until his daughter talked him into going to Star of India soon after the restaurant opened over 20 years ago. Since then he's been a regular. "Medicine is taking note of the Indian spices and their health benefits," Drinkwater said. "I've had some problems with my weight, but I can eat a really well-balanced meal here and it doesn't affect my weight at all. This is healthful."
As we spoke, Lal was hard at work, often greeting those coming in by name or with his customary, booming "Hey, my brother!" or "Welcome home!" One customer who came in introduced Lal to his actual brother, with Lal telling him: "Welcome to the world!"
I caught up with Lal as he sped around the almost-full restaurant, checking on tables and greeting those coming in the door. One of my first questions was the thing a lot of regulars are curious about: Given the hundreds of faces he sees week to week, how does he remember all those names?
"It's a very tricky system," he said with a big grin. "It just comes to my tongue to say the name."
Lal said that though he loves the restaurant business, he really got into it because he genuinely likes seeing people happy, before and after a meal. "To be honest with you, it just makes me feel good to take care of the people, you know?" he said. "I always love people, and people blessing me. I love to take care of all the people who come to eat here."
The job of the hardest working man in show business waits for no reporter, however. Soon, the door opened again. He excused himself graciously as another group in coats stepped into the warmth of Sami's presence, all smiles when he called them by name.