Tucson’s restaurant industry in 2017 at times felt like a rollercoaster ride, with enough twists and turns to keep us on our toes.
Here are the top restaurant stories that had us talking in 2017, and a few that will keep our attention in 2018:
Pat Connors exits on his own terms
Longtime Tucson restauranteur Pat Connors, facing the final stretch of a months-long battle with stage 4 lung cancer, threw himself a living wake on the last day of February. Hundreds turned out at his central Tucson restaurant Pastiche Modern Eatery for one last hug, one final farewell to the businessman whose mark on Tucson’s restaurant community, from his generous philanthropy to his staunch advocacy, had defined his restaurant and his career. Days later, on March 5, Connors died.
Later in March, Midwest transplants Judie and Costas Georgacas, who had run restaurants in Chicago for decades, bought the 19-year-old Pastiche. For the most part, the couple continued where Connors left off, keeping the name and the menu in tact and retaining the staff. The Georgacases did add one personal touch: Pastiche’s signature is now “American Dining, Greek Hospitality,” a nod to Georgacas’s native Greece.
Kale in a cup with a side of politics
Just before lunchtime on an otherwise quiet Friday in early October, the owners of the University of Arizona-area restaurant, Cup It Up American Grill, issued a lengthy statement on their Facebook page announcing that they were joining Donald Trump’s call to boycott NFL games in light of players taking a knee during the National Anthem.
But they didn’t stop there: Christopher Smith and Jay Warren went on to outline what they described as their official “statement” that included supporting “OUR President,” legal immigration and standing for the national anthem; and opposing such things as political correctness, entitlements and global warming.
The reaction was remarkable and swift; over the next 48 hours, the restaurant’s social media approval rating tanked from more than four stars to one, opponents issued blistering attacks on Facebook and, the owners said, customers verbally assaulted and threatened employees even after the post was taken down that Friday afternoon. On Saturday afternoon, Smith, who said he was a veteran, issued a written apology signed by him and Warren — “Our decision to bring our personal political beliefs into a business forum is regretful, and for this we apologize to all.” — but it apparently was too late. By that Monday, the pair pulled the plug on the restaurant, which specialized in healthful meals in a cup.
Once the dust had settled a couple weeks later and the signs on the building at 760 N. Tyndall Ave. had been removed, the owners took to Facebook to thank their supporters and vowed to return in some form.
“Our concept and beliefs are strong. We still believe in this great country and plan to open a Cup It Up American Grill in a city near you,” they wrote in mid-October.
Dramatic opening, a tragic fall and one that just didn’t work out
JAM Culinary Concepts, parent to longtime Neopolitan pizzeria Vero Amore and the Oro Valley gastropub Noble Hops, started the year announcing the openings of two new concepts: authentic New Orleans-inspired Sazerac Creole Kitchen & Cocktails in St. Philip’s Plaza, 4280 N. Campbell Ave.; and the Indian eatery Twisted Tandoor at 4660 E. Camp Lowell Drive, a partnership with Roop Singh.
At year’s end came the separate announcements, weeks apart, that both restaurants would not be around come the new year.
Twisted Tandoor was the first casualty in mid-November, less than four months after it opened. The restaurant was expected to open in early 2017 but the date was pushed back after one of the owners, Joshua Mussman, fell off a 12-foot ladder while repairing the roof and broke both his legs on the eve of Sazerac’s opening. Mussman owns JAM with his brother Aric and mother, Suzanne Kaiser.
Kaiser said they will revisit Indian cuisine under a new operator early this year. Meanwhile, partner Singh, whose late husband’s popular Twisted Tandoor Indian food truck inspired the restaurant, resumed the food truck operation.
Days before Christmas, JAM announced it was turning the lease for Sazerac over to the operators of the St. Philip’s Plaza gastropub Union Public House. No word yet on what the pair, Grant Krueger and Steve Stratigouleas, will do with the 3,000-square-foot spot, which is across the courtyard from the popular Union Public House and the pair’s other St. Philip’s operation, Reforma, a modern Mexican restaurant.
End of Molina’s Midway
The Molina family in early May closed their Molina’s Midway Mexican Food restaurant, ending a 64-year, three-generation run. The Molina siblings, ranging in age from the early 80s to early 90s, had decided they were too old to continue running the restaurant at 1138 N. Belvedere Road.
In October, after making $200,000 in improvements including electrical and plumbing upgrades, Riad Altoubal opened Zayna Mediterranean in the 5,000-square-foot building that he bought from the Molinas last spring.
“It’s doing very, very well, much better than the other location because we had the parking problem over there,” Altoubal said just ahead of the restaurant’s lunch rush last Tuesday. “It’s much better than before.”
Altoubal opened Zayna six years ago at 4122 E. Speedway, a 2,500-square-foot space that quickly became too small for the popular Mediterranean restaurant.
Molina’s sibling Las Margaritas, which Tillie Valle — a daughter of Louisa and Elias Molina — and her husband opened nearly 40 years ago, closed one of its two locations on Dec. 24. Valle’s daughter, Terry Morse, said she sold the property at 3602 E. Grant Road to the neighbors, Precision Inc., an automotive sales and repair business.
Boca figures it out on Fourth
Boca Tacos & Tequila on East Speedway got the news early in the year that it was getting the boot from its landlord near the University of Arizona to make way for yet another multistory housing complex. So chef-owner Maria Mazon started looking around for a new home. She found it in a prized North Fourth Avenue spot late last spring when Donna Difiore announced she was closing Delectables, which had been a dining destination at 533 N. Fourth Ave. for 44 years. Difiore, who owned the restaurant since the early 1980s, transitioned the business into catering only.
In early July, the cat was out of the bag on Mazon’s plans to buy the 3,000-square-foot space. She opened Boca in early August.
You can catch Mazon on the Food Network on Tuesday, Jan. 9, when she will compete in the cookoff game show “Chopped.”
Sam Fox’s delicious Playground antics
It was the best, worst-kept secret for months before Tucson-born restaurant mogul Sam Fox announced publicly that he had bought the old Grant Road Lumber and planned to bring his popular Culinary Dropout at The Yard concept to his hometown.
Nearly a year after he bought the lumber yard and after months of construction at a cost that was expected to top $11 million — one of Fox’s most expensive restaurant ventures — he opened Culinary Dropout on Sept. 20. The 19,000-square-foot project was his first new concept in Tucson in a decade.
In mid-December, Fox opened his first North Italia in Las Vegas. North, which has a location at La Encantada in Tucson, is expected soon to open two Texas locations — in Dallas and Austin. That would make five North locations in Texas. The Italian concept also has outposts in the Phoenix area, Colorado, Kansas and California.
Five Palms bites the dust. Is fine dining finished?
It had a reputation for being spendy in a town not known for forking over $40 for the cheapest steak on the menu. But it was more likely the outsized ambition of owner Nino Aidi that led him to close his upscale fine-dining restaurant Five Palms Steak & Seafood in early September.
The 12,800-square-foot restaurant, perched on a hill at 3500 E. Sunrise Drive that was once home to Terra Cotta, had several concepts — a wine and cigar bar, nightclub and Mediterranean restaurant in addition to the upscale main restaurant — vying for customers attention. No reason was given for calling it quits after five years in business.
Wild Garlic Grill moves to the Foothills
You know you’re onto something special in the ever-challenging restaurant universe when you find that you have more customers than tables. That’s the dilemma Wild Garlic Grill owner Maudi Gourdin and her chef-husband Steven Schultz faced in August. There were lines to get into their 5-year-old hidden culinary gem at 2530 N. First Ave. — squeezed into an old drive-through burger joint — night-after-night.
The couple decided in August that they needed more elbow room in the dining room and wiggle room in the kitchen. They signed a lease last summer for the 3,700-square-foot space at 2870 E. Skyline Drive vacated in February by Shlomo & Vito’s New York Delicatessen & Pizza Kitchen and began a renovation project that stretched out through early fall. They continued serving their menu of French and California-inspired garlic-centric fare out of the First Avenue location until October, when they turned on the “Open” sign for the new digs.
Celebrating our City of Gastronomy
In late 2015, Tucson was named the first UNESCO City of Gastronomy and in 2017, the culinary citizens of the City of Gastronomy circled the wagons and began a series of long-lasting celebrations that included assertively inserting the theme into the annual foodie homage Tucson Meet Yourself last October. Hotel Congress’ ninth annual Agave Heritage Festival last May took on a few more partners including Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson Botanical Gardens and the Mexican Consulate to offer dinners, seminars and other food-centric events spread over four days.
This year’s festival April 27 through May 6. Visit hotelcongress.com/agave-heritage-festival for a schedule and more information.
Coming up: The 2018 Savor Southern Arizona Food & Wine Festival builds on the UNESCO designation with expanded culinary events that run throughout the week prior to the main event Feb. 3 at Tucson Botanical Gardens, 2150 N. Alvernon Way. It will feature more than 75 chefs, wineries, breweries, local foods and restaurants showcasing the flavors and diversity of the region’s culinary heritage. Other events in the fifth annual festival, that opens Jan. 28, include wine and dessert tastings and a Mardi Gras and Fat Tuesday-themed charity event at the Rialto Theatre. For a complete schedule and tickets, visit saaca.org
And then there were these headlines
— Longtime bar owner Nancy Kuhlmann closed her namesake Fort Lowell Pub at 746 E. Fort Lowell Road on Feb. 19 and 24 hours later gave new life to the Boondocks right around the corner at 3306 N. First Ave. Kulmann decided that Boondocks, which had been a destination for live music, sizzling burgers and cold beer since 1980, was such an institution that she would keep the name. She added her name to the sign out front so that her Nancy’s Fort Lowell Pub clientele would know where to find her.
— After months of holding on against the odds of the multiyear Ina Road/Interstate 10 highway interchange reconstruction project, Miss Saigon at 4650 W. Ina Road quietly shut off the “Open” sign. The owners insist it’s not permanent; once Ina Road is back up and running, so will they, they said in August, six months after the road work had claimed as casualties Chuy’s Mesquite Broiler, Waffle House, Hooters and Jack in the Box. Meanwhile, Heng Chao and his family at Donut Wheel, 4524 W. Ina Road, just east of the tip of the construction zone, are a stubborn lot. Despite a dramatic downturn in business, they have hung in there. Loyal customers have made pleas on social media for customers to make the detour off Orange Grove or Cortaro Farms roads to support the shop, which the Chao family has owned since 1997.
— Tucson’s Tamale Man Perfecto Léon opened his second restaurant, the fast-casual cousin of his south-side flagship Perfecto’s at 5404 S. 12th Ave. The new place, Perfecto’s Mexican Grill Express at 1055 E. Irvington Road near South Park Avenue, features the family’s trademark tamales and a concept that loosely follows the Chipotle model of create your own bowl, burrito or taco.
Coming soon ...
— American Eat Company at 1439 S. Fourth Ave., the longtime home of American Meat Co., is set to open sometime in early 2018. The restaurant incubator, which will have six restaurants, a bar and a market, is being developed by the Common Group, which for several years has been redeveloping distressed commercial properties on the south side and bringing new business ventures into those neighborhoods. Great American Eat Company has been more than a year in the making.
— Robert Carlson, who runs his family’s 10-year-old Carlson Creek Vineyards in Willcox with his brother, John, broke ground late last month on a 12,000-square-foot, nearly $1 million winery. Construction could be done as early as June and the new facility will have fermentation space, a custom crush area, barrel space and case storage, along with a private dining room, demo kitchen and events space to host weddings, corporate events parties and other private shindigs. They also are adding a tasting room.
“This will bring a lot of our operations under one roof,” Carlson said. The new facilities also will help the winery to more than double its production from 2,000 cases to 5,000. “The goal is to get this facility up to about 10,000 cases,” he said.
Carlson Creek wines are available at Whole Foods, BevMo, AJ’s, Sprouts and Fry’s statewide, and resorts in Phoenix and Northern Arizona. Carlson said they hope to be distributed in Southern California and Nevada.