The big night out is a 'disappointing' stay at Little Rock's Capital Hotel

So much of 2020 was lost due to the ongoing pandemic.

You still had your birthday, but you didn’t have a party. You still had the holidays, but you didn’t go anywhere, trading family time together for Zoom sessions to dye Easter eggs or unwrap Christmas presents.

You still had your wedding anniversary, but whatever traditions you associate with that were largely left by the wayside.

My wife and I always celebrated our anniversary with a night at the Capital Hotel in Little Rock and then a nice meal out -- sometimes at the hotel, sometimes elsewhere.

That wasn’t the case last year, as the Capital Hotel was closed for 419 days and only re-opened on May 17.

So now, vaccinated and ready to go, we eagerly looked forward to a return to our anniversary tradition at the hotel where we spent our wedding night and return year after year.

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Even last year, we still made the trip to downtown Little Rock to get a picture in front of the building, masks on.

So in 2021, we were ready for the five-star treatment that the Capital Hotel has deservedly earned.

Following Little Rock multi-billionaire Warren Stephens’ purchase of the landmark, the hotel underwent a massive renovation and reopened in 2007 and has hosted such luminaries as actor Morgan Freeman to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in the last few years. More famously and much, much earlier, former President Ulysses S. Grant stayed there in 1880 on a visit to Little Rock.

The building is on the National Register of Historic Places and is still a stunner inside and out, with polished marble and beautiful furniture and decor, but the experience wasn’t what it was on previous stays.

Remember, a proper review takes multiple visits to get a picture of the service and amenities. So what follows is only a snapshot of one couple’s experience on a recent overnight stay.

To get a sense of what the Capital Hotel was, AAA gave it a four-diamond rating, the only one in the state to get that recognition, and AAA noted that it had “upscale style and amenities enhanced with the right touch of service.”

But that was pre-Covid and what was once a world-class experience could be summed up best in one word: disappointing.

That’s a real shame, for two reasons. One, our expectations would have been tempered if the booking system noted that some services and amenities weren’t available as the hotel worked back to its four-diamond state. Two, at $250 for a night in a standard room, it was a premium price for a stay that while nice didn’t earn that kind of price tag.

On our drive to the hotel, we talked about what feature we’d be most disappointed by if it weren’t available.

I said I would miss the chocolate-covered toffee made by Lambrecht Gourmet in Heber Springs. That Southern Pecan Toffee, plus the always excellent Leiva’s Coffee, powered me through my wedding day, and I’ll always have a fondness for both.

On a hot day, my wife said she was looking forward to the small bottled Cokes. The lobby traditionally had a table with chilled water, lemonade and those Cokes for guests to get a drink and cool off before going to their rooms.

The lobby also would have various newspapers, fresh-cut flowers and a big welcome, by name, from the valet and concierge desk.

None of that was true on a recent Friday.

No special touches. No welcome. Just a hotel lobby, an exceptionally nice hotel lobby, but nothing special.

Our valet did note the hotel was working with a smaller staff than previously and hiring was underway.

One Eleven, the hotel’s fine-dining restaurant was closed, so unlike previous trips, we did not book a package including a meal with a night’s stay. The hotel’s website noted the restaurant was closed and would re-open later this summer. It didn’t say that the other amenities and services the hotel offers weren’t available. If it had, that might have helped with expectations and lowered that bar.

The lack of a package stay may have contributed to a smaller room and none of the usual welcome amenities, such as spiced pecans and bottled Mountain Valley Spring Water. Of course, previous stays also got chocolate covered strawberries, champagne and wine. 

The bathroom was still well-stocked with the very good Molton Brown products though not the traveler boxed kits with an emery board, small sewing kit and Q-tips, among other helpful items. While the hotel’s famous bathrobes were still hanging in the closet, the embroidered slippers had been replaced by plain, white terry cloth slides. I realize these are all very much first world problems. 

With One Eleven being closed, we left the hotel for dinner elsewhere and on our return, it was more disappointment.

The hotel’s famous turndown service wasn’t done. That’s when the staff would place that delicious toffee on the pillow while also replacing towels and generally straightening the room.

When we couldn’t find the room service breakfast menu, the front desk explained that the hotel didn’t have the staff to accomplish either turndown or room service, and that those services would return later this summer. Again, it would have been nice if the hotel’s website had said that, instead of talking up the amenities. Also, again, the cost is a splurge, and the extras are what make it worth it. And they aren’t there, the Capital Hotel is just another nice hotel. If you hadn’t been pre-Covid, it would be jaw-dropping, now it is just a shrug.

On the plus side, the Capital Bar & Grill is still a terrific place to get a drink. We also enjoyed dessert there as well, but even there the attention to detail was lacking. After the strawberry shortcake was delivered, I had to fetch napkins and silverware, then later a pen to sign the check.

The second floor porch, billed as “Little Rock’s Front Porch,” is also still great, and it was a lively scene as the newly hired investment bankers for Stephens, Inc., were enjoying themselves at an orientation dinner with a well-stocked bar.

The next morning, the Leiva’s Coffee urn was out, and the baby bankers were preparing themselves for a Saturday of skeet shooting, so the lobby was hopping.

In fairness, the front desk clerks at checkout wanted to know about our stay, took notes and profusely apologized for the shortcomings. A gift bag of toffee was secured, and both clerks, who remembered me from previous stays, said a manager would follow up with a phone call.

For now, if looking for a night’s accommodations, I’d wait on staying at the Capital Hotel while offering my sincere hope that it returns to what it once was.