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Bring back The Gar Hole

I’ve written recently about fishing for gar and a wonderful new book from the University of Arkansas press that covers that topic.

I’ve also written about the short list of old Little Rock restaurants that still live on — Browning’s, Bruno’s, Franke’s, Lassis Inn.

With continued downtown revitalization in Little Rock, the time has come.

It’s time to bring back The Gar Hole.

The name itself is just so Arkansas. If done correctly, it could be a place to celebrate Arkansas culture.

The Gar Hole was the famous bar in the Marion Hotel, which closed in April 1970. For decades, it was one of the top gathering spots in the state for politicians, businessmen and media types.

We need to resurrect the name. This time, though, it will be more than a bar. It will be a restaurant (with, of course, a large mounted alligator gar over the bar).

Some thoughts:

1. Remember when I wrote about state Rep. Robert Moore, the incoming House speaker from Arkansas City? The last time I checked, Robert owned the old Gar Hole sign and had it stored down in Arkansas City. I’m sure Robert would be delighted to see it put to use.

2. The walls inside the new Gar Hole should be covered by caricatures of leading Arkansas political, sports, media and business figures — much like the caricatures on the walls of Sardi’s in Manhattan. People love to go to a spot where they’re featured on the wall.

3. Regulars would get their names on the bar with small brass plaques like they do at the Court of Two Sisters in New Orleans.

4. The restaurant also would rent personal wine bins to patrons like is done at the steakhouses in The Capital Grille chain.

5. The restaurant would feature Arkansas food — barbecue, fried chicken, catfish, chicken fried steaks. But it also would have excellent steaks and seafood. The menu could include photos of famous Arkansas restaurants — Craig’s in DeValls Bluff, Fred’s in Newport, Jerry’s in Trumann, etc. It would, in essence, be a place to celebrate Arkansas food and its history.

6. The atmosphere wouldn’t be stuffy, but it would be nice. It would be the kind of place where men would almost feel obligated to wear a blazer after dark (my friends already accuse me of wearing my navy blazer on the beach, so the rest of you might as well join me). The waiting area would have that day’s editions of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Financial Times to add a touch of class.

7. The men’s room would have an attendant and a shoeshine man, retro touches that I think would be a hit in downtown Little Rock.

8. The restaurant would host a show several evenings each week from one of the Little Rock radio stations. The show would focus on this state — its politics, food, music, history, culture and sports. Kane Webb and I are ready and willing to host such a show. The radio show would help create the impression that The Gar Hole is the place to see and be seen.

9. Target audiences would be political types and the lobbyists who hang out with them, media types and the advertising agency folks who like to hang out with them, business leaders, sports celebrities and those who simply want to be associated with these people.

For atmosphere, I’m thinking of something along the lines of the old Toots Shor’s in New York. Our celebrities wouldn’t be nearly as famous as the ones in New York, but you get the point.

In a 2007 Wall Street Journal column, Allen Barra (the author of the best of the Bear Bryant biographies) said Toots “gained the friendship of heavyweight champions, movie stars, Nobel Prize-winning authors, Supreme Court justices and five U.S. presidents. … The saloon was a place where a salesman from Iowa could rub elbows with the most famous athletes in America, from Joe DiMaggio to Frank Gifford to Sugar Ray Robinson, and bump into Frank Sinatra or Ernest Hemingway on the way to the restroom — and maybe have to step over Jackie Gleason to get there. It was also a place the famous went to meet each other. When Toots introduced Hemingway to Yogi Berra as ‘an important writer,’ Yogi said, ‘Good to meet you. What paper are you with, Ernie?”’

Shor once outdrank Gleason and then left him on the floor. Gleason, in turn, sent a spray of roses to go on Shor’s coffin with a card that read, “Save a table for two.”

In the 1957 movie “Sweet Smell of Success,” a publicist played by Tony Curtis wants to visit with a U.S. senator and a gossip columnist played by Burt Lancaster. Where does he go? Toots Shor’s, of course.

“The atmosphere was so congenial that one remarkable evening, Frank Costello, the head of the New York mob, smiled across the dining room, nodded and tipped a glass to Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren, who smiled and tipped his glass in return,” Barra wrote.

The late David Halberstam wrote this about Shor in his book “Summer of ’49”: “If he insulted someone, that person was welcome. He was particularly skillful at using the technique with some of his most serious celebrities. It allowed them to shed some of the burden of their fame and relax — while being treated as VIPs. Shor was surprisingly nimble, indeed, most delicate in knowing how far to go and when to stop.”

Barra wrote: “He suffered no man’s insolence, no matter how famous or powerful. When Hollywood mogul Louis B. Mayer complained about having to wait for a table and huffed, ‘I trust the food will be worth all the waiting,’ Toots shot back, ‘It’ll be better than some of your crummy pictures I stood in line to see.”’

Another way of looking at it would be to make The Gar Hole the Little Rock version of New York’s 21 Club, the restaurant and former speakeasy at 21 West 52nd St. It originally was a speakeasy known as the Red Head when it opened in Greewich Village in 1922. It became the Fronton in 1925, the Puncheon Club in 1926 and finally Jack and Charlie’s 21 when it moved to its current location in 1929.

For those familiar with Washington, a model there would be the Jockey Club on Embassy Row at the Fairfax Hotel.

Al Gore Jr. spent his childhood years in Suite 909 at the Fairfax while his father served in the U.S. Senate. There’s a famous story of how the young Gore would dribble a basketball incessantly on the hardwood floors, much to the dismay of Sen. John L. McClellan of Arkansas in Suite 809 down below.

The Jockey Club in the Fairfax had a masculine look with equestrian accents — dark wood, red leather banquettes and red-and-white tableclothes like the ones at 21.

“The place had panache,” one article on the Jockey Club said. “The service was impeccable. The maitre d’ knew how to seat the crowds who lined up at the entrance daily. There were those diners who wanted to see and be seen. There were others who required a discreet quiet corner to solve the nation’s latest crisis. The clientele from the neighborhood’s embassies could have learned advanced studies in diplomacy from the staff at the Jockey Club. Everyone who experienced the restaurant was buoyed by the extraordinary service that was always gracious and personalized.”

So there you have it. You’ve seen my vision for the 21st century version of The Gar Hole.

Where’s the right downtown location? And where are the investors?

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