You ever go back to a place you visited in your youth? You hope that things will be exactly the same, a snapshot in time. Most of the time hopes are dashed -- people have moved on and things have changed.
But there’s a bar in Little Rock that still feels the same, still serves the same great food, and still feels a little bit like home.
Back in the mid-90s, I was fresh out of college and enjoying the twenty-something lifestyle. I had a lot of friends close to my age, and our local hang-out was Zack’s Place on South University. We’d go down there in a group to play darts and NTN and chill out. I was the designated driver… it always worked out that way, but that was fine by me. I got my drinks and sometimes even my eats for free. We lived a couple of blocks away, so it wasn’t unusual to see us there any of the six days of the week the place was open.
We all grew up, and some of us moved away for a while. Paul and I came back here in 1999 -- on May 13th, to be exact. We sat down and had lunch and decided that day we’d been engaged long enough, and set our wedding date for exactly six months later. Somehow, after we got married, we just didn’t end up over there as often. But eventually, I had to come back and see what had happened, see if the magic was still there.
First thing I noticed pulling up was the “Under 21 Not Admitted” sign, which would have been a deal-buster when I was a younger woman. Now it’s standard. The law states you can either allow smoking and limit access by age or be open to everyone and ban smoking. Many of the places I’ve been to since the law went into effect seem like smokehouses -- but it’s not too bad here. The ventilation is good.
I walked in one afternoon and had to figure out what was wrong with the picture. When I was a younger woman, there were pool tables on the right when you came in, right in front of the big mural on the north wall of local celebrities in the stands at Ray Winder Field. I had at that time hopes to be enshrined on that wall. There had been tables on the right, and darts on the south wall.
Things have changed. Now there’s a partial wall on the right, I suppose to keep errant darts from spearing would-be patrons on entrance. The pool tables are on the left -- and the left goes on quite a bit. Two years ago Zack’s Place took over the unoccupied slot next door and expanded out. There are a lot more tables now, some high bar tables and of all things couches along the wall. There’s even a small dance floor in the back corner -- imagine that! The bar’s been expanded along the western wall, and there’s a bank of monitors overhead, with NTN and some sort of poker and of course ESPN and just about anything else you want to watch.
And it’s still cold. I’m not sure why it’s cold, but the thermostat at Zack’s Place has always been set somewhere in the 60s or below, doesn’t matter the time of year. With its black ceilings and walls, it really does feel a bit like a cave.
Well, the atmosphere didn’t seem all that different -- but what about the food? I wanted to know if all those favorites we used to come down for were still on the menu.
Good news is, they are. I went for lunch one day and sure enough, the big white wipe board had its share of daily specials listed, entrees on the top, selection of sides on the bottom and a few special desserts. I ordered up the Salisbury Steak (all of these dinner specials are $6.99 with two sides and a roll) with butter corn and lima beans. The meat was tangy, like an oniony meatloaf with gravy. The butter corn was its usual salty self -- and the lima beans were good and salty with bits of bacon. An unsweet cornbread roll completed the meal.
Another visit, and there were the Breaded Mushrooms ($4.49). I had almost gone for my other old appetizer favorite, the Jack Cheese Sticks ($5.59) but decided I needed something slightly healthier. The mushrooms were same as they ever were, plentiful in a basket with that cornmeal breading and a side of ranch. Generous portion, they come out hot and you have to either let them cool or go for it with the ranch dressing. And I’m not kidding -- they are exactly as they were 15 years ago.
I had to give the Fried Salad ($6.99) another whirl. This was my favorite back in the day, pieces of fried chicken strips and cashews and tomatoes on a bed of greens. The pieces of chicken are diced up smaller now, but otherwise it’s the same salad, and paired up with some honey mustard and some Thousand Island dressing (yes, I know, weird combination, but I like it) and the cup o’crackers sent out with it… I was in a time warp. It was a good time warp.
One thing that I used to have almost every time I went in was the Turtle Cheesecake. But I know better now -- that comes pre-packaged. I wanted something housemade for dessert -- that’s how I roll these days. So on the suggestion of my waitress I tried the homemade Brownie a la Mode. I chose well. The nutless brownie was both crisp and chewy while also being decently dense, a good match to ice cream. Portion was larger than my waist needed, but that was all right.
So, really, Zack’s may have expanded and re-arranged. The menu hasn’t, though, except for the prices (I can remember when you could nurse chips and salsa all night for $1.99) and there are still a crew of regulars hanging around. Just another neighborhood bar with good food.
You’ll find Zack’s Place on South University a couple of blocks south of 12th Street. Thing is, if you approach it from the north you’re in good shape; from the south, you need to take the curb cut just north of EZ Mart, since there’s not another curb cut until 12th Street. Open Monday-Saturday from 11am to 2am (1am on Saturday) -- hell, maybe they’re open Sunday now, but I didn’t check. I doubt it, though. They have a website now… or you can call (501) 664-6444.