David Timberlake has a boyish smile and sounds sweeter than a high school student trying to talk his way out of detention. The veteran bar manager and server at Pantry West in Little Rock has worked more than two decades in the restaurant business. He has earned the right to become one of those grizzled old hands who barks at customers or completely ignores them, someone who people tolerate because he practically chopped down the first tree to build the place. He is not that guy.


“My favorite part of the job is building relationships with my customers. Some of my very best friends are people I’ve met because I was their server or bartender,” Timberlake said. “I’ve traveled the world with some.”


Timberlake began working at the Pantry 13 years ago. The restaurant, which has locations in west Little Rock and the Hillcrest area of Little Rock, has earned local and national acclaim for its rustic European cuisine, including Czech, Hungarian, German and northern Italian dishes.


Timberlake himself has been recognized by the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, the Arkansas Times and AY About You for his excellent bartending and service. He is obviously doing something right.


“I work for the best restaurateur in the city,” he said. “[Owner] Tomas Bohm really takes care of us.”


Timberlake grew up on a small farm outside of Bald Knob, just an hour northeast of Little Rock.


“My family was pretty poor, but we always had fresh food because we had a big garden,” he said. “My mother and my grandmother were both good cooks, probably because they had to be.”


His appreciation for good food began at home, but his introduction to food service came during high school in the kitchen of a local restaurant. When he graduated, Timberlake wanted to try his luck in the big city.


After he moved to Little Rock, Timberlake trained to become a massage therapist and practiced for more than a year, but a chance encounter with Kathy Webb and Nancy Tesmer, then-owners of bygone Lilly’s Dim Sum Then Some, lured him back to the restaurant industry.


“A couple of weeks later, I went to apply and started the next day,” he said.


Little Rock was meant to be his first stop on the way to someplace bigger, but family ties and the fast friendships he formed there changed his mind.


“I met so many good people here, and it just became home,” he said.


The hustle and bustle of waiting tables at a busy restaurant helped satisfy Timberlake’s hankering for big city life. He stayed at Lilly’s for three years before moving on to Boscoe’s Restaurant & Brewing Co. and eventually to SO Restaurant-Bar, where he met his future boss, Bohm, who was the general manager there. When Bohm left to open his own restaurant, Timberlake followed.


“He was the only person I wanted to work for. I talked to him, and I became a part of the Pantry,” he said.


Timberlake said he is proud of the food at Pantry West and the restaurant’s niche corner of central Arkansas’ culinary landscape. One of his duties as a server is to talk newcomers through foreign items on the menu. If they ask, he tells them his personal favorites are the lasagna al forno, the fish and frites, and the roasted pork shoulder served with potato dumplings, braised red cabbage and pork au jus.


Located just off Interstate 430, Pantry West attracts many out-of-town guests. Timberlake said he enjoys exchanging stories and recommendations with passers-through, some of whom are surprised to find dishes on the menu they have not enjoyed for years.   


“We get people who say, ‘I haven’t eaten this kind of food since I visited Germany a decade ago,’ or ‘since I served in the military overseas,’” Timberlake said.


Timberlake is not just a server at Pantry West; he is also the bar manager. Some nights, he pulls double duty, mixing drinks for other servers while he waits on his own tables. Only a seasoned vet would be fast enough to literally and metaphorically juggle that many plates (and glasses).


Timberlake’s favorite drink at the Pantry West is a seasonal special called the Floating Origami, a cocktail made with bourbon, apricot liqueur, aperitivo and Peychaud’s bitters with a float of Origami Sake from Hot Springs on top.


If a patron is lucky enough to be seated at one of his tables, they will no doubt quickly notice how polite Timberlake is. When he was still a neophyte, he picked up rules of etiquette from his peers.


“I grew up in a small town,” Timberlake said. “I didn’t go to cotillion.”


He quickly learned the proper way to set a table, but he also learned to open doors for patrons and lend a hand to women walking up and down the stairs. His advice to new servers is twofold:


“Trust your instincts, and just be yourself,” he said. “People can tell if you try to fake it.”


Loving the food and having the patience of a saint and a great memory do not hurt either.


“I don’t write a whole lot down,” he said. “I make more mistakes when I do. I can’t read my own penmanship sometimes.”


Over the years, Timberlake has seen many young servers come and go. They start waiting tables in college and go on to become nurses, doctors and lawyers. As for himself, he does not have plans to leave the service industry anytime soon.


“My job is really to create an atmosphere for people to enjoy themselves,” he said. “There’s no better place to lift people up than in the service industry.”


Timberlake plans to travel to Europe soon and eat as much local food as he can find there. His first stop will likely be the Czech Republic, the place of origin for many of Pantry West’s dishes and the homeland of Bohm. At home and abroad, Timberlake prefers patronizing small, independent restaurants more than chains.


“I always like to ask customers’ suggestions for trips or restaurants,” Timberlake said. “If they’re eating at the Pantry and they’re regulars, I trust their judgment.”  


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