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Natives Guide: West Little Rock 

Chains, yes, but parks and puppies, too.

While it's tempting for the Hillcrest/Stifft Station/Heights crowd to see West Little Rock — which we're defining as anything west of Interstate 430, from the Arkansas River in the north to Interstate 30 in the south — as a white-flight wasteland of rich folks, ritzy burbs, big box stores and bland strip malls, there's actually a lot going on in terms of what you can see, eat and do. Like a lot of Little Rock neighborhoods, West Little Rock has seen exponential growth in recent years, and not just the amoeba-like blob of gated communities that seems intent on stretching ever-westward toward the horizon until it finally pinches off and forms an uppity new city called Chenal. There's plenty to eat, see, drink, buy and do out there, so don't let your fear of appearing bougie keep you from exploring.

While I'm loathe to recommend too many chains, they're a lot of what West Little Rock is about, so I'll make my one genuflection to our corporate overlords first thing in the morning, with a plug for breakfast at La Madeleine (12210 W. Markham), the Little Rock outlet of the country-French restaurant chain. One can only imagine the shade an actual, Gauloises-smoking Parisian would throw at La Madeline, with its precious decor and employees who give a Southern-fried "Bonjour!" to folks when they walk in the door, but that doesn't change the fact that it's an underappreciated breakfast spot with a big menu featuring quiches, pillowy croissants, crepes, omelets, egg dishes and some of the best coffee around, all of it reasonably priced. Definitely recommended if you're not in the mood for IHOP.

Once you've gotten breakfast out of the way, there's plenty of shopping to do in West Little Rock. If you're at all geeky, be sure to check out Game Goblins (1121 S. Bowman Road). It's the area's largest retailer of card games, role-playing games and board games, with over 6,000 square feet of nerd heaven, plus a constantly updated slate of tournaments and tabletop gaming get-togethers to help gamers break out of their Xbox-driven isolation and be among the living again. Hit its website, gamegoblins.com, for more information about selection and events. If you've spent too much on Dungeons and Dragons by then but still need some stuff, head on out to Goodwill (16924 Cantrell Road). While there are other Goodwill stores in Little Rock, this is clearly the goodest Goodwill, featuring higher-end donations from the surrounding neighborhoods to create a constantly circulating selection of sturdy furniture, cute clothes and shoes, kitchen items and accessories. (There's another good 'un at 9700 N. Rodney Parham.)

By then, you might be ready for lunch. If you want to try to eat your weight in sushi without having to take out a second mortgage, Tokyo House (11 Shackleford Drive) is a good place to try. Featuring a big, fresh sushi buffet and a separate hot bar of Asian-inspired dishes like dumplings, baked fish, fried rice, tempura shrimp and more, it's quite a few clicks in quality above your standard strip- mall Chinese buffet, but at a similar price point, which makes it twice as nice. If you'd rather go Latin (and have a designated driver so you can enjoy a few margaritas) try the ever-popular Local Lime (17809 Chenal Parkway), a Yellow Rocket Concepts eatery. Fresh, chic and friendly, Local Lime features upscale takes on tacos, fajitas and salads. Co-starring at Local Lime are the drinks, including several different styles of margaritas. If you've got room after all that, head on over to celebrated pie shop Honey Pies (315. N. Bowman Road). Featuring lovingly baked pies in a seasonally rotating variety of flavors, it's the perfect place to quiet a sweet tooth.

If there's some wiggle room on your credit card by then, go spend a few hours strolling The Promenade at Chenal (17711 Chenal Parkway), the high-end shopping extravaganza featuring stores such as footwear haven DSW, the technology money pit that is the area's only Apple Store and quirky, locally owned shops such as Saggio Olive Oils and Vinegars (which sells, yep, you guessed it, high-end olive oils and vinegars by the pint or gallon). It's a great place to lose a few hours and some of your disposable income.

If all that shameless indulgence in capitalism leaves you feeling a bit empty and lonely, seek some unconditional love at the Humane Society of Pulaski County animal shelter (14600 Colonel Glenn Road), where dozens of cats, kittens, dogs and puppies are up for adoption to the right owners. After that, unless a trip to the pet store for toys and kibble is in order, try one of the several excellent parks out west, including Two Rivers Park or Pinnacle Mountain State Park. With plenty of great views and beautiful paved and unpaved walking trails, either is perfect for burning off the excess calories or spending a moment pondering life's mysteries.

The meaning of life then discerned, head for a meal at The Pantry (11401 N. Rodney Parham), chef Tomas Bohm's phenomenal Czech and German restaurant. It's open from 11 a.m. to midnight Monday through Saturday. Featuring a stunning (and stunningly delicious) variety of scratch-made soups, sausages, cheese plates, sandwiches, burgers, flatbreads and more, it's definitely one of the better dining experiences in all of Little Rock. If good ol' home cookin' is more your speed, try Franke's Cafeteria (11121 N. Rodney Parham) just up the street. Opened as a bakery in 1919, Franke's transformed in 1924 into a downtown cafeteria and it's been dishing up simple favorites ever since, including roast beef, fried chicken, liver and onions, candied sweet potatoes, eggplant casserole, fried okra and more. If a steak is more to your liking, another fairly old-line Little Rock joint in West Little Rock is The Butcher Shop (10825 Hermitage Road). Opened in 1982, the temple to carnivorousness has built a well-deserved following around a simple formula of serving up great appetizers, hand-cut steaks grilled over hickory charcoal and slow-roasted prime rib.

West Little Rock happens to have several stellar places for nightlife. If you're looking for a cozy joint to have a beer and a friendly chat in a place where everybody will soon know your name, head to Khalil's Pub and Grill (110 S. Shackleford Road). Be sure to talk a friend into riding the mustache-shaped teeter-totter with you while you're there. For something a bit more upscale with maybe a little food on the side, head to the sleek Petit and Keet (1620 Market St.). Featuring a menu chock-full of goodies like artisanal cheeses, shrimp and cheese grits, succotash and burgers, plus a drink menu of innovative cocktails, Petit and Keet has deservedly landed at the top of a lot of local "Best Bars" lists. Another great West Little Rock option for blowing off some late-night steam is Thirst N' Howl Bar and Grill (1710 Cantrell), the popular watering hole named for the snooty rich guy on "Gilligan's Island." It features live music Wednesday through Saturday nights.

Or if you're eager to take the party home, a West Little Rock shopping trip is incomplete without a visit to booze mecca Colonial Wines & Spirits (11200 W. Markham St.), Central Arkansas's most well-stocked liquor store.

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