The Jewel Cafe and Juice Bar, 431 N. Fourth Ave., is working to open this year after months of renovations.

Every restaurant starts off as an empty building.

While we may walk by these empty buildings and think there is nothing special about them, restaurant owners in Tucson are hard at work, renovating and transforming each of these blank slates into something amazing.

An old pizza chain will soon be a tapas restaurant, making its customers feel like they are enjoying shareable dishes in Spain. The first floor of an apartment building will bring the east coast to Tucson when it transforms into a grab-and-go pizza café.

Each of these empty buildings are getting a new lease on life, thanks to the creative eye of local restaurant owners.

The same can be said for Julia "Jewels" Russell. She and her husband Jonathan stumbled upon a vacant building on Fourth Avenue, sparking inspiration for a farm-to-table concept called The Jewel Café.

“We are a 75% farm-to-table concept that will bring awareness to what we eat in the hopes that we’ll show people that it's possible to source your food from ethical and sustainable businesses,” Russell said.

After months and months of renovations, The Jewel Café is aiming to open in 2024, providing Fourth Avenue with a healthy restaurant that also serves up coffee and pressed juices.

The once-vacant building has now had a total makeover. The walls are painted a jewel-tone blue and various tables and artwork fill up the space. Russell even plans on incorporating local vendors in the café, making it a place for the community to gather and support one another.

“I'm just really excited to promote these other local businesses,” Russell said. “I feel like this is an opportunity to pull what everybody has to offer together.”

Like The Jewel Café, many new and inventive restaurants are coming to Tucson in the new year. Below are just a few of the new spots we’re excited to visit in 2024.

Abraham and Selina Barajas plan to open Luna y Sol Cafe in the property that was most recently home to Balloon Land. The South Tucson shop is named after their daughters, Mia Sol, lower left, and Sofia Luna.

Luna y Sol Café

In the former Balloon Land building at 137 W. 29th St., Selina and Abraham Barajas are opening a new café, hoping to fill a void in South Tucson and attract customers from the south and west sides. Luna y Sol, which is named after the couple’s children, plans on selling coffee, beverages and pastries. They also plan to have food trucks on their property, an indoor meeting space and an outdoor seating area that includes a play and entertainment area.

Luna y Sol will be so much more than a café, but a place for the community to come together and feel welcome. They are currently in the renovation phase and hope to open in 2024.

The Broadway

Rocco’s Little Chicago Pizza, Kiss of Smoke BBQ and Bisbee Breakfast Club can all be found along the historic Sunshine Mile. Now, a new bar is gearing to make its appearance along with the other iconic shops and restaurants that line the mile.

The Broadway, 2559 E. Broadway, will be a beer and wine bar, where people can experience craft beer and wine with a classic mid-century vibe. They recently commented on an Instagram post, saying they expect to open in late summer or early fall.

Jonathan Russell, left, and Julia Russell, owners of The Jewel Cafe and Juice Bar.

The Jewel Café

This new Fourth Avenue café at 431 N. Fourth Ave. will provide delicious meals that are ethically sourced. Julia "Jewels" Russell and her husband Jonathan want to provide the community with a new farm-to-table café that shows people the importance of sustainable businesses.

Along with their food, which will be made by local chef Ben Twilegar, they will also serve coffee from Decibel Coffee Works, pressed juice and pastries from gluten-free vendors like Dedicated.

In the future, Russell even wants to create a QR code that customers can use in order to see where their food is sourced from.

The closed Fired Pie location at 350 E. Congress St. is slated to become a new tapas restaurant.

Basqueria

Inspired by the Basque country of Northern Spain and Southern France, Freddy ElMesselmani will turn the old Fired Pie building downtown into a new tapas restaurant.

Basqueria350 E. Congress St., will feature tapas along with other shareables and small dishes, including breakfast, lunch and dinner like Basque-style breakfast beans, flatbreads and smoked salmon with goat cheese and honey.

Once Basqueria opens, it will be the first dedicated tapas restaurant downtown since Casa Vicente closed in 2017.

Whole Slvce Pizza

Ari Shapiro, owner of Falora and Beaut Burger, is bringing a little bit of New York City to the desert. Whole Slvce Pizza will be a small pizza café on the ground floor of the Monier Apartments, 160 S. Avenida del Convento.

The grab-and-go pizza place will specialize in pizza by the slice, transporting its customers to the east coast. According to their Instagram, construction on the new restaurant officially began in December.

Mantis Gourmet Chinese Food

This beloved Chinese spot in Marana recently announced that they will be re-opening at a new location, 8295 N. Cortaro Road, in 2024. The opening date is still being determined since they are in the middle of construction.

After announcing the re-opening on their Facebook page, several comments were left by community members who were ecstatic about the news.

Special Eats opened a gourmet grilled cheese truck in 2022, aiming to empower people with special needs.

Special Eats Sweets

In 2022, a big yellow food truck hit the Tucson scene, serving up crispy, gooey grilled cheese sandwiches. A year later, they’re ready to expand to sweet treats.

Special Eats will open a new dessert truck and brick-and-mortar at Fifth Street and Rosemont Boulevard, hopefully in January.

Snow cones, ice cream, cookies, milkshakes and brownies will all be on the menu at their new digs. Along with the desserts, you will also be able to purchase homemade gift baskets and jewelry.

Chela’s Latin Cuisine is expected to open in downtown Tucson in late February or early March.

Chela’s Latin Cuisine

The family behind local restaurant El Sur is opening a new eatery in late February or early March, combining Sonoran and Honduran flavors.

Chela’s Latin Cuisine, which is named after the matriarch of the Mejia family, will focus on dinner, plus brunch on the weekends. Their menu features meals like lobster tail and sopa marinera along with a Caribbean cocktail called Agua de Chela.

After you fill up on dinner, you can dance the night away as Chela’s, 256 E. Congress St., transforms into a night club during the later hours.

An artist rendering of the patio area at Sonora Moonshine Company.

Sonora Moonshine Company

Es Teran, the chief executive at Borderlands Brewing, is the driving force behind Sonora Moonshine Company, 124 E. Broadway, a restaurant with a full bar that focuses on agave-based spirits. The menu will include drinks made with mezcal, tequila, bacanora and sotol.

Along with the main dining area, there will also be an outdoor patio space and a basement bar decorated to look like an old-fashioned speakeasy.

Casa Madre Restaurant

Headed by Dominique Stoller, who worked at a local restaurant until starting her own catering service in 2019, Casa Madre Restaurant is dedicated to fine dining and cocktails alongside a Himalayan rock salt wall, like the ones normally found in spas. 

Casa Madre, 747 S. Sixth Ave., will be open 4-11 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday. 

These places aren't new, but ...

As we say goodbye to 2023, I get to look back on all the tasty tacos, fries, sushi and pastries I got to try. Although I only became #ThisIsTucson's food reporter in October, I have been able to try so many different restaurants and meet the kindest people. From the birria ramen at Rollies to the apple pie ice cream at Mockups, I get to end this year with a full stomach.

In 2024, I still have so many restaurants, food trucks and cafes to try. While I keep adding new places to try to my already loooooooooong list, here are some of the places I’m excited to stop by next year.

  • Aspasia: This new midtown Mediterranean restaurant has been on my go-to list since my editor, Gloria, drove by it. Just looking at their social media posts makes my mouth water. Pictures of their falafels, chicken kabob sandwiches and gyros look amazing and I can’t wait to stop by.
  • Mojo Cuban Kitchen: Since its green sign popped up on the corner of Grant Road, I’ve been dying to visit. Their menu has all kinds of sandwiches and plates that all sound tasty. Plus, I’m a sucker for piña coladas.
  • Coop by Cowpig: Both Gloria and my colleague Elvia can’t say enough good things about Coop, a chicken tender spot in American Eat Co. All three of us are chicken tender connoisseurs, so it’s been a shame that I haven’t gone yet. I mean, their chicken buffalo fries look like a dream come true.
  • Talega Coffee Co.: I am a coffee fiend, so anytime a new coffee shop opens up, I’m there and ready for an iced vanilla latte. I was so excited to see Talega pop up on my Instagram feed and I will be there very soon to check it out.

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Jamie Donnelly is the food writer for #ThisIsTucson. Contact her via e-mail at jdonnelly@tucson.com