If you grew up in a household that preached, ‘Nothing good ever happens after midnight,’ most of 2020 has felt like a time warp back to your childhood. In addition to everything else, COVID-19 has put the kibosh on anything happening in Arkansas’ bars and restaurants after 11 p.m., as of the end of January.
It’s a painful fact of life not lost on Robert “Rodge” Arnold, owner of Charlee’s Good Time Drinkery in Midtown, one of the very few all-night establishments in the city. Opening Charlee’s, his very first joint, Arnold should be serving night owls of all shapes and sizes until 5 a.m. Instead, he’s waiting out the 11 p.m. curfew, pining for the day when the cozy neighborhood restaurant and bar can once again let it all hang out.
“[COVID restrictions] hurt our whole industry immensely, without reason. There’s no rhyme or reason for it,” he said. “We’re doing our best and we would prefer if they went back to Phase 2, where our hours are the same, but it restricts the number of people in here. We would be all for that. But it is what it is. We’re bouncing back and, fortunately, most people in this industry are pretty hardy.”
“They’re saying February 3; we’re planning and we’re moving forward as if that’s going to be when they lift the mandate for the curfew. We’ve managed to wait it out to now and if, for some reason, they delay it again we’ll have to adapt again and figure out a new course. That’s what we’re getting good at, making the best of a bad situation.”
Charlee’s, a smoke-free establishment located in the former Local Union space on the first floor of the Prospect Building on North University, opened in August. It quickly became a popular spot for patrons either ending their bar-hopping or their work shift on the strength of unexpectedly good food, served fast.
“Our concept here putting this together was I wanted a 5 a.m. bar, with the best possible bar food that you could have,” Arnold said. “We’re a scratch kitchen; tater tots are the only thing that we buy that are a pre-packaged product. If it’s smoked, we smoke it in-house; our ham and turkey for our sandwiches. We go for the higher end.”
“When you sit down to eat here, even though you’ve ordered wings or a cheeseburger, I want you to be like, ‘Wow, that was really good.’”
The full bar is equally discriminating in its selections, in part due to lack of space and in part due to Arnold’s passion for spirits – bourbons in particular.
“I’m a bourbon guy and I wanted to be able to showcase a bourbon selection that anybody could walk in and be like, okay, that’s a good bourbon selection,” he said. “But that carries over to everything; we try to keep a limited selection, just so I don’t have to carry 27 different bottles. There’s a couple of things that you have to have; the trendy stuff that the kids are into, we know about that and know that they’re going to ask for.”
Most of what you experience at Charlee’s (named for Arnold’s wife) is the culmination of his having spent nearly half his life in the bar and restaurant business, paying attention along the way. A native of Helena, Arnold finished his degree at UA Little Rock where he started waiting tables at age 19. A string of jobs followed, each imparting various lessons on surviving in the cutthroat hospitality business, which he soaked in at every opportunity.
“You just kind of learn bits and pieces of it here and there,” he said. “You learn from watching other people and it’s not necessarily the people that you work for or what people do right. Sometimes you learn from what other people did wrong.”
“Everywhere you work, there’s a little something you take. You take the good, you separate yourself from the bad and, hopefully, you come up with some sort of concept that works best.”
Among these various influences are touches that are uniquely Arnold’s. From the seemingly random (flamingo wallpaper) to the easily-overlooked (lightning bolt logo), no detail is too small to bear the boss’ fingerprints.
“I wish the story of the flamingos was better because it’s become so prominent in everything that we do,” he said. “That was actually wallpaper that Charlee got for our house. She’s quirky and she’s awesome. We decided that would look kind of cool if we just threw it up on one wall behind the bar. It’ll brighten the place up.”
“The lightning bolt is because my wife is a huge David Bowie fan and it was inspired by the immortal “Aladdin Sane” period. In the bar world, you want something simple that people will remember. We can take any part of that logo and use it. That lightning bolt stands on its own.”
Arnold said the response to the change in hours has been good, drawing a surprising level of dinner business from the surrounding neighborhood and weekend revelers. Still, talking to him you feel a restlessness, eager as he is to turn his ideas loose on the late-night crowd for which they were intended.
“We have a lot of late-night regulars,” he said. “We have people in the service industry that are getting off work. We get a pretty good crowd from the hospitals who come over. For them, it’s happy hour. They get off at 3 a.m., they’re going to go here and eat and have that first cocktail after work before they go to bed.”
“Service industry people are the best. They know how to act, they rarely get out of line. They tip the best. They’re just in it to have fun and to blow off steam. Being in that industry and having worked there, that’s who I cater to and that’s what I want.”
Charlee’s Good Time Drinkery
1501 North University Avenue, Little Rock