"Sorry, we don't currently have any tables available for 2."
Since it opened in August, getting a meal in any of the pleasant three main dining areas at George's Little Rock, the new Italian restaurant that replaced Cafe Prego in what started out as a bungalow on Kavanaugh Boulevard in Little Rock's Pulaski Heights, has been by reservation only.
The restaurant's management has, perhaps cleverly, designated other spaces to accommodate its walk-in customers, including a secondary bar area, a patio and the so-called speakeasy, nicknamed Barnaby after what the tight-knit members of the founding team had, for some reason, called their high school cafeteria table.
For months, we tried to penetrate the online reservation system via George's website, without success, to get a dining-room table. We only got, and are still getting, that message, for every date in the near and middle future:
"Sorry, we don't currently have any tables available for 2."
We sometimes have a hard enough time coordinating schedules with dining companions to just be able to make up a party of two. And so we were faced with limited alternatives, all of them either unpleasant (like foregoing the restaurant altogether) or not entirely practical (like trying to assemble a party of four or more).
Then came the good news that George's management had abandoned the plan to offer a separate bill of fare in Barnaby and would be serving therein the full George's dinner menu: a selection of classic Italian dishes plus signature and specialty items from executive chef and culinary director Wes Mickel.
And so we put a plan into action, our opening gambit a solo visit on a weekend evening and, to follow up, putting a party of two a few days thereafter into Barnaby on a weekday, pre-holiday night that we calculated would likely be less busy.
■ ■ ■
Barnaby is a sort of L-shaped space that the builders have fitted in behind a seemingly blank wall just north of the restaurant entryway. It's a speakeasy, in that you have to ask for admittance (we won't spoil the surprise of the entry mechanism), but unlike with past or even modern-day speakeasies, you don't require a secret password to enter.
Inside, you pass by an entry to the busy kitchen on your right and two well appointed restrooms on your left (we don't, as a rule, review restrooms, but hey, these are the nicest ones in this town west of the Capital Hotel) and enter a comfortable, pleasant space where booze -- in the incarnation of a very impressive, fully stocked bar -- dominates the room and a sort of jungle vibe covers the walls. Oh, and of course, there are large-screen TVs to show the games, because, duh.
Seating is at small marble-topped tables that comfortably hold two and possibly, with a little jockeying, four, with plush, low chairs on one side and banquette benches on the other. Lighting is primarily from wall sconces -- if you're seated just right, they're bright enough so you can read the cream-white menus but maybe not bright enough to decipher, without aid, the yellow-print-on-dark green background cocktail lists. (Thank goodness most phones these days come with built-in flashlights.)
One recent weekend evening I took an audacious and unannounced run at Barnaby. The restaurant was absolutely packed with people sipping and chowing down. The dining room (where the decor, the work of Charlotte, N.C.-based designer Rebecca Dickson Callis, is a pleasant and civilized work in whites and pastel greens) was full. The handful of seats in the main bar area, in an interstitial space between the dining room and the entryway, were full. There was one vacant table on the patio, to which walk-in customers and those waiting for tables are shunted. There was a waiting list even for Barnaby.
I sat in the "lobby" for about 15 minutes, not a bad wait actually, for a vacant seat in the speakeasy (and I would have waited up to 45 minutes to get a table in the speakeasy), ending up at the dimmest end of the very dimly lit bar, so dimly lit I couldn't make out the menu without that phone flashlight. (As a bonus, I also used it to help the wait staff read the tickets when they were picking up drinks that Lauren, one of two Barnaby bartenders, was turning out in great volume and with considerable efficiency, yet had time and the concentration to concentrate on her couple of at-the-bar customers, including me.)
Yes, George's had indeed ditched the planned Barnaby menu in favor of the same one patrons who made reservations got in the main dining room. I had a working familiarity with it -- I'd seen it at a pre-opening preview. Concentrating on the portion of the menu labeled "George's Signatures," I looked askance -- as I have been looking since I spotted it on the menu during that preview -- at the $24 Spaghetti & Meatballs. (All the pasta is made in-house, which may have something to do with the prices.)
I decided instead to take a flyer on George's Lasagna ($26). Unlike many house-made lasagnas, this one seemed not to be cut from a larger sheet but formed and shaped as a separate piece. It consisted of firm pasta sheeting surrounding and interleaved between plenty of cheese (at least two kinds, ricotta and stringy mozzarella) and large chunks of meat (including sausage, ground beef and what appeared to be shredded beef). It was tastiest when the mouthful included the ample smoky, garlicky red sauce. The portion was so large I took nearly half of it home (and had it as excellent reheated leftovers the following night).
■ ■ ■
For our second visit, we recruited a Cosmopolitan Companion and descended upon George's on a night we correctly calculated would not be too crowded. Sure enough, we walked right into Barnaby and got a table right at the crux of the "L," with a good view of both halves of the speakeasy.
This time, we decided to spring for one of the antipasti, all of which are "whistle" priced (as in, when you see the price, you whistle), but which we hoped would be large enough for two to share at that fare. We were a little puzzled as to just what the menu meant by "crudo" ($22) -- veggies? charcuterie? -- but it turned out to be slices of sushi-grade tuna, artfully arranged on a bed of capers, shallots, lemon and olive oil. We did manage to split it comfortably between the two of us.
Given the immense size of our entree portions, we might well have passed it up.
Cosmopolitan Companion was looking for a non-pasta dish, so she opted for the Chicken Paillard ($25), a large chicken breast prepared with a red pesto and topped with grated parmesan, served with a large stalk of charred broccolini ($8 a la carte if you're in need of a green-veggie side dish) steeped in lemon, chili oil and more parmesan. The chicken was a little tough but not dry, and some of it and most of the broccolini did end up in a to-go box.
We took another flyer on the Fresh Catch alla Plancha, which on this given day was seared scallops in a sort of relish-sauce primarily consisting of sun-dried tomatoes, served on a generous bed of al dente spaghetti in a white-wine-cream sauce. We waited for our check to discover the market price, which at first bounce would seem steep at $45, but ... well, we started counting the large sea scallops, and given that any restaurant in town would have been generous if the kitchen stopped at four scallops, and here there were eight, and that we once again made two meals out of the portion, we'd count that as a bargain.
Our server, Rowan, was at hand when we needed her and gave us what help we needed, including during the small confusion when the food runner brought us rigatoni in spicy vodka sauce instead of the chicken. That was put right with remarkable quickness.
■ ■ ■
Like just about every restaurant around here of the caliber to which George's aspires, there's a carefully curated cocktail menu that uses, among other items, locally produced Rocktown boozes. Cosmopolitan Companion wanted to sample and none of the five Barnaby Exclusives appealed to us (in addition to a couple of them being bewilderingly complex), so we settled on and were pleased with two of the signature cocktails:
◼️ The Pepperberry Fizz ($12), consisting of Rocktown Vodka, Giffard Strawberry liqueur, lemon, simple syrup, strawberry puree, Scorpion bitters (added spice) and prosecco
◼️ The Skinny Italian ($10), a sort of Italian-style margarita, made with Cimarron Blanco tequila, Luxardo Amaretto, lime juice and Rocktown Triple-Sec.
Georges Little Rock
- Address: 5510 Kavanaugh Blvd., Little Rock
- Hours: Dining room 5-10 p.m., Barnaby 4 p.m.-close, Sunday-Monday and Wednesday-Saturday (closed Tuesday)
- Cuisine: Italian
- Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D
- Alcoholic beverages: Full bar; elaborate cocktail program
- Wheelchair access: Yes
- Information: (501) 353-2239; georgeslittlerock.com; facebook.com/GeorgesLittleRock