Since I was taught in the newspaper business not to hide things from readers, I will reveal my bias at the start: I am a member of the board of the Arkansas Travelers.
That said, I would not be touting Ump’s at Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock unless I believed it was a good place to eat — really good.
I’ll be quick to tell you that I miss Bill Valentine’s Ballpark Restaurant. Valentine’s had some of the best Italian food in the region. Bill insisted on it. He was always happy to stop by the table and tell you what he recommended that night. The first time I was there, Bill brought over some mussels that had just been flown in earlier that afternoon. On the next trip, he brought over some fresh mozzarella.
If you pressed him, Bill would tell you how he grew to be such a connoisseur of fine food and wine. When Bill became the youngest umpire in the history of the America League, most games were still played in the afternoon. After the games, other members of the crew were ready to put on casual clothes and go find a burger and a beer. They assigned the young Valentine to accompany the crew chief, a wealthy New Yorker who liked to put on a suit and try out the finest restaurants in each city.
The crew chief paid the tab for both men. Bill, a Little Rock native, ate, listened and learned while visiting restaurants in great American League cities such as Boston, New York and Baltimore.
Bill Valentine retired from the Travelers shortly before the start of the season. And the economy fell through the floor, making high-dollar restaurants the kinds of places you visit only on special occasions, not weekly. It seemed inevitable that there would be a change. And there was.
Fortunately for all who live in Central Arkansas, that change did not consist of the decision that a full-service restaurant was not viable at Dickey-Stephens Park. In fact, most of the kitchen staff remained intact. Now, instead of veal osso buco, they’re serving some of the best burgers and onion rings around. The French dip sandwich is highly recommended, as is the patty melt.
Some higher-dollar items remain on the menu for those wanting more than a sandwich, though the sandwiches tend to be large.
I’ve been at Ump’s on numerous occasions since the season began. And I’ve yet to be disappointed.
The atmosphere could not have been better Sunday night when I dined there with my 12-year-old son. We arrived well before the start of the game and stayed in Ump’s through the first inning, watching the first six outs on the large monitor above the bar. The staff had switched from a major league game to the closed-circuit Travelers feed just before the first pitch.
Maybe it’s only me, but Dickey-Stephens Park seems just as new, just as fresh, just as clean today as it did two years ago during its inaugural season. And the view across the river at the Little Rock skyline is better than ever.
We have a jewel in Dickey-Stephens Park. And Ump’s has proved to be the perfect complement to a night spent there.
I don’t wish old age on myself. But when work obligations and family obligations are no longer what they are now, I think I will become one of those old guys who is at the ballpark every home game and stays all nine innings. With season tickets at Dickey-Stephens Park, fall football at Ouachita, UALR basketball season tickets at the equally fantastic Stephens Center and a box at Oaklawn, I could just about fill my year.