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Main Street, Restaurants and the Big Mo

3 min read

The recent announcement that another new restaurant will be opening on Little Rock’s Main Street lends weight to the idea that this part of downtown has the “big mo,” the momentum to keep diners coming to what once was a pretty sketchy part of town past 5 p.m.

Chris and Samantha Tanner plan to open Samantha’s Tap Room & Wood Grill at 322 Main St., right next door to Bruno’s Little Italy. The proximity is intentional. The Tanners, who also own and operate Cheers in the Heights, are friends of the Brunos and frequent diners at the restaurant.

They see synergy in the pairing. “It’s a great match because, for one thing, our menus are totally opposite,” Chris Tanner says. “It’s like up here. All the restaurants that have come into the Heights — our business has only grown, for 14 years now.”

And he loves the space downtown, 4,700 SF that he’s leasing in the Mann on Main building. “It’s probably one of the coolest spaces in Little Rock,” Tanner says. “It’s on the corner. It’s all windows. 20-foot ceilings with huge columns inside. I like it warm, not too modern, casual.”

He becomes dreamy as he describes the vibe he wants: “Good food. Kitchen’s going to be open. There are going to be some seats near the kitchen, where you can sit at a bar there. Just have a good time. No obligations to dress up. Everybody knows I like my shorts and flip-flops in the summertime.”

Although Tanner describes himself as the idea man and his wife as the numbers cruncher, he knows that his investment downtown is big, about $1 million worth in finish-out, equipment and furnishings.

He’s hired or will hire AMR Architects, Garry Mertins Design and Tycor Construction to help him bring his ideas to life.

The long-established Cheers does solid business, almost $1.2 million in sales last year and almost $600,000 in the first six months of 2014. Tanner thinks Samantha’s will surpass that. “I feel like it will be over $2 million, relatively easy.”

Tanner has always wanted to open another restaurant. “This is something I’ve thought about for two years.” His wife, for whom Samantha’s is obviously named, says that he’s worked on the menu for a year.

He’ll have lots of appetizers, customer favorites from his catering business, things like grilled shishito peppers with olive oil and sea salt, parmesan salsa, grilled ciabatta bread, roasted cremini mushrooms with bacon and parmesan, spice-rubbed spinelli steak on a skewer.

The new restaurant, which will be open for lunch and dinner, will offer soups, salads, sandwiches, a “simple burger,” and “everything is going to be ala carte so you can kind of build your menu however you want.” Tanner will focus on local and seasonal foods and praises the smoked meats from Courseys up in St. Joe (Searcy County).

He’ll have a full bar, but the emphasis will be on beer and wine, with 32 draft beers and 20 wines by the glass, 10 whites, 10 reds. And the wines will be on tap, Tanner says, a delivery system growing in popularity around the country.

He hopes to open Samantha’s by the end of this year or the first of next. “I’ll have a better idea in six or seven weeks, once we really get going.”

The success of restaurants along Main Street — from the Southern cuisine of South on Main, now a year old, to the community-mindedness of the Root Café to Bruno’s — and the promise of more development — the planned Technology Park and “creative corridor” — have made the Tanners’ dreams feasible. “It’s huge,” Tanner says of the redevelopment’s importance to the couple’s business plan.

And such success and promise have meant jobs. Samantha’s, for example, will employ at least 40 full- and part-time workers.

Joe Fox, owner of the now venerable Community Bakery, has seen businesses on Main come and go and he’s measured in his assessment, but even he thinks a “critical mass” may have been reached. “As you well know, the momentum has picked up.”

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