Favorite

The suburban dive bar 

BIG CROWDS: Tables are scarce at Markham Street Grill on Friday night.
  • BIG CROWDS: Tables are scarce at Markham Street Grill on Friday night.

In the beginning there was the dive bar. The dive had several defining qualities. It was in a city. (Country folk went to the roadhouse.) The walls were made of wood. The floors were made of concrete. The bar itself held a prominent place in the room because drinking was the focus of the establishment. Honky-tonk bands played passable country covers that, since the space was big enough, the clientele could ignore or dance to at will. The booze was cheap, the talk loose, the times fine.

Then issued from the loins of the dive bar its bastardized offspring: the suburban dive bar. The suburban dive bar is what happens when people remove themselves from greater urban ills like noise, pollution and minorities, only to realize that in removing themselves they've abandoned the smaller pleasures of city life. Yet no matter how hard the suburban dive may try to live up to its ancestor's reputation, it is shackled by patterns of development beyond its control. As a result, the suburban dive will almost certainly be wedged between a cell phone vendor and a take-out pizza shack in the middle of a strip mall. Upon exiting, its besotted patron will be afforded a vista of a concrete river backed by the crags of a Circuit City or some similar edifice. In the parking lot there will be at least one vehicle with a decal that depicts Calvin of “Calvin and Hobbes” fame pissing on the symbol of a despised entity like Ford, Chevrolet or Christianity.

The suburban dive doesn't compensate for its unfortunate geography with solid interior design principles. Whereas its ancestor decayed in a stately ramshackle fashion, a noble, white-haired grandfather, the suburban dive farts along with the premature age of an LSD burnout. Thin carpet is de rigueur, the better to retain wafts of cigarette smoke that flood the room. Photos of Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle hang on the walls regardless of how far the place is from the Bronx. Take your grandmother's living room, shove a bar off to the side, stick a couple of grizzled old dudes in a corner and give them a guitar, fill the whole space with tables, and you have a rough approximation of what the suburban dive bar looks like.

All of this is to say that we already had some idea of what we were getting ourselves into when we took a recent trip out to Markham Street Grill and Pub in West Little Rock on a Friday night. What we weren't quite ready for was the crowd. After passing the band that was stationed immediately to the left of the entrance, two of us pushed our way to an open space at the back of the room. It took a few minutes of looking at the full tables before we realized that no one gets a seat without throwing some elbows. We decided to eat at the bar.

Conversation wasn't easy. The band was playing country covers at full volume, so we were forced to shout at each other. We did benefit from the service of a very friendly bartender. Leniency was a virtue at this establishment. I was allowed to steal maraschino cherries with impunity.

Then there was the food, which was … err … food. To the kitchen's credit, the menu did have some creative items on it, particularly in the appetizer section. Special kudos are deserved for taking this city's melted-cheese obsession to the next level with the Gorgonzola dip. If you like Gorgonzola, you're going to love dipping little hunks of bread into a hot plate of the stuff. We also tried the Louisiana Crab Cakes, which came with a tangy sauce. They were lightly breaded, more crab meat than fried material. I hadn't had crab cakes in a while, and they hit the spot. Our stomachs were only so big, but the Fried Mushrooms and Bacon Wrapped Shrimp & Scallops also attracted our attention.

Other sections of the menu had plenty of selection as well. The offerings were straightforward — soups, salads and sandwiches. For those who prefer their drinks after 4 p.m., there were additional entrees of steak, fish and chicken that run at about double the price of the rest of the menu items.

For dinner we chose a Southwestern Burger from the ample burgers section. Fries had to be ordered separately and were nothing out of the ordinary. The sandwich was quite large. It was topped with spicy mayo, jalapeño jack, and — a pleasant surprise — fried jalapeño peppers. Fried jalapenos are so simple-but-brilliant that we should have invented them.

My companion ordered the Crispy Oriental Chicken salad. The dish was a bit disappointing. It was geared to gratify dressing lovers — if the pint of orange sesame vinaigrette that comes on the bed of lettuce isn't enough, there's an extra cup on the side. The meat was nothing more than sliced up chicken fingers, although, to be fair, that was advertised on the menu.

We were looking forward to the fried cheese cake, but the kitchen was out of it. We asked about other desserts, but quickly claimed satiety after sneaking a peek of the chef pulling a piece of pie out of a refrigerated plastic sack.

Having had our fill of bar food, we headed for the exit, ready for an evening stroll. We walked 50 yards, stared at the Michael's, retreated to the car, and did 70 back to the city.

Markham Street

Grill and Pub

2 1/2 stars

11321 W. Markham St.

224-2010

www.markhamst.com

Quick Bite

This is a bar and it has all the staples of bar food. The Friday night crowd is rowdy and the band is loud. (There's live music every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night.) A wide variety of burgers satisfies, as do some imaginative appetizers.

Hours

11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Friday; 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Saturday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday.

Other info

Cheap to moderate prices. Credit cards accepted. Stacked bar. Website claims, “We are one of the last smokers [sic] havens.”

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