Iconic spot made famous by Bill Clinton’s presidential run
This month, Arkansas Money & Politics introduces a new feature, “The Digs of the Deal,” that combines two of our favorite subjects — politics and history. Our goal is to tell the stories behind those places where deals actually are made, and Arkansas political history unfolds. And we couldn’t imagine a better place to start than Doe’s Eat Place in Little Rock.
The building that now houses Doe’s Eat Place in Little Rock, located on West Markham downtown, was built in 1895. For the first few decades of its life, the building housed several mercantile stores in the growing capital city. In the 1940s, several restaurants came and went.
But it wasn’t until the 1990s that the building’s role in Arkansas politics would really begin.
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For years, Arkansas hobby pilot and demolition expert George Eldridge would fly friends and clients to a humble little dive in Greenville, Miss. that had developed a reputation throughout the region for its steaks. Doe’s Eat Place was indeed one of Eldridge’s favorite stops.
Eventually, he asked himself, “Why fly to Greenville?,” and bought the rights to bring the name and the menu to Little Rock. In May 1988, Doe’s opened downtown on Markham in the same spot it sits today. And the minute Doe’s opened in Little Rock, it was a hit. People familiar with Doe’s reputation wanted to check out its Little Rock equivalent.
The flow of customers into Doe’s was steady from the moment the restaurant opened its doors. But the scene changed overnight when Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton announced that he was running for president in 1991.
Eldridge remembers like it was yesterday.
“We had the presence of Bill and Hillary right here in the restaurant. It became a political hangout,” he told Arkansas Money & Politics, as he peered around at the walls covered in framed political memorabilia. “After Bill announced that he was running for president, they made their headquarters just down the street, so he and his campaign team always ate here.
“I’ve been feeding Clinton since the 1970s, when he was the attorney general.”
The day after Clinton announced his run for the White House, Doe’s became a place of local and even national fixation. Clinton appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone in September 1992, and the interview took place at Doe’s.
Katherine Eldridge, George’s daughter and owner since 2012, was waiting tables at the time and remembers the uptick in celebrity visits starting in ’91.
“Limos would pull up to the restaurant,” she said. “And all sorts of media would try to get in.”
Soon the restaurant was frequented by a host of prominent media figures and political pundits including George Stephanopoulos, Mandy Grunwald, Andy Rooney, Wolf Blitzer, Barbara Walters and Dee Dee Myers. And the walls at Doe’s are covered with hundreds of pictures of celebrities who visited, eager to sample for themselves the restaurant’s growing renown. Photos of Willie Nelson, Greg Allman, Don Tyson, James Cotton, Albert King and many more line the walls from top to bottom.
Clinton’s affinity for Doe’s followed him to the White House, and the Eldridges were passengers on the gravy train.
“After Clinton won the White House, we were in D.C. a lot,” the elder Eldridge recalled. “If you were from Arkansas, you were a rock star there. People recognized me, too, after some time. They’d say, ‘Isn’t that the guy who owns Doe’s?’ Clinton had a great mind for remembering people and introducing people to others on a ground level. Washington had never seen anything like it. It made some folks in D.C. nervous.”
George and Katherine were invited to a host of events in Washington, not just as caterers but as guests and friends. George escorted former Doe’s chef Lucille Robinson to the ‘92 Inaugural Ball. A portrait of the two, taken by internationally recognized photographer Annie Lebowitz, has found a home on the wall at Doe’s alongside dozens of other memorabilia.
Even with the Clintons no longer in town, Doe’s had firmly secured its place as a designated lunch spot for politicians and business people across the capital city. So much so that a handful of lobbyists including Earl Jones, Don Allen, Paul Berry and Bob Smith, to name a few, took it upon themselves to expand Doe’s.
“We built the Power Room here in 1990,” Elridge explained. “A group of lobbyists wanted a more private place to eat and discuss and make deals, so they all put up $1,000 a piece to cover construction costs, and I put the money towards their food credit. We built the Power Room so that they could have a private room to themselves.”
During legislative sessions, the lobbyists who had invested in the expansion had dibs on the Power Room, which otherwise was open to everyone. Today, Eldridge said the room still hosts political fundraisers, business lunches and dinners, as well as entertainment.
“Clinton would also come in and watch the Hogs in there,” he said.
Katherine Eldridge remembers the wheeling and dealing that took place in the Power Room. She said lobbyists and lawmakers were sometimes able to get more done at Doe’s than they were at the state Capitol.
“While I couldn’t hear everything that happened between lobbyists and politicians in there, whenever I would step in to refill a drink or bring in an order, I was under the impression that progress was being made,” she said. “There wasn’t as much pressure to find a solution here as there was in a political chamber or formal setting.”
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It’s not all politics at Doe’s. The restaurant caters to nonpolitical groups and organizations as well.
“Every Tuesday for eight weeks, we’ve had a men’s church group come in and do Bible study. We have a financial group that has come in very frequently,” Katherine Eldridge said. “We’ve had rehearsal dinners, large birthday parties and even traditional wakes.”
Her father added, “Kids who grew up eating here have their wedding rehearsal parties here. Then after a few years, they start bringing their kids here.”
Still, the Doe’s legacy in Little Rock is centered on politics. Acutely aware of the role the restaurant has played in Arkansas politics, the Eldridges try to remain politically neutral in every way. As one Arkansas lobbyist once said, “I have Democrat clients who think I’m a Republican, and Republican clients who think I’m a Democrat.” And the Eldridges have plenty of GOP and Democratic Party customers.
“The governor [Asa Hutchinson] comes in; Congressman French Hill has had his fundraisers down here, lots of folks with different affiliations eat here,” George Eldridge added.
Unfortunately, an election year pandemic left Doe’s a little less packed than it would’ve otherwise been in 2020.
“Because of the pandemic, we weren’t able to host fundraisers during a presidential election year, and a huge election at that,” Katherine Eldridge explained. “It hurt us business-wise. The service industry has been devastated, and we’re holding on tight.”
The theme song for the ’92 Clinton campaign was Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow.” Despite the bump in the road that was 2020, the Eldridge family is thinking about tomorrow. Recent renovations created a new, dog-friendly patio in the space behind the main building that formerly was occupied by the iconic Doghouse Liquor. The sign for the old beer grab adorns the patio, appropriately enough.
Doe’s has stood the test of time from its tucked-away corner of downtown Little Rock, secure in its status as a launch pad for political movements and even business deals that won’t make the front page.
“We’ve been here for several decades. I’m sure we will be for several decades more,” George Eldridge assured.