The adage “If you build it, they will come,” has played out in spectacular fashion in Tucson’s Downtown.
Since 2006, when Tucson voters approved the $2.1 billion Regional Transportation Plan that included the modern streetcar, downtown has seen aggressive redevelopment that has brought dozens of new restaurants, night clubs, bars and shops which have transformed it into a vibrant entertainment district. The district generally stretches from Toole Avenue to Interstate 10 with Broadway and Congress Street running through its center.
The newest resident is Pizzeria Bianco, 272 E. Congress St., from celebrated chef Chris Bianco. The restaurant’s opening last Thursday brought several hundred guests who crammed into every table in the dining room and every chair at the bar to get a taste of Bianco’s nationally acclaimed pizza and see the James Beard Award-winning chef in action.
All night, Bianco tossed pies from the open kitchen, greeting diners passing by and answering questions from anyone who leaned over the counter and asked. Every once in awhile, he’d sneak into the dining room to shake hands and visit guests as he made his way to his family table, where his father and mother-in-law were taking care of his 3-month-old baby girl while his wife worked the hostess station.
“This downtown Tucson has an amazing feel,” said Seth Sulka, Bianco’s chief operating officer, who said that Bianco has had offers to open restaurants all over the country but was drawn to Tucson. “It’s unique. There’s a real palpable feeling of creativity and authenticity.”
Bianco, a 30-year veteran of Phoenix’s restaurant scene, is not the only one who felt the tug of Tucson’s downtown, sparked by the year-old Cadence student housing complex at 350 E. Congress and the arrival last weekend of the streetcar.
Several “coming soon” signs — Fired Pie, Planet Smoothies and Proper Meats + Provisions all set to open at the east end of Congress — and a 150-room Marriott being built at Fifth Avenue and Broadway suggest the story has more chapters yet to be written.
Downtown today has more than 60 restaurants including Suzana Davila’s urban bistro Café Poca Cosa, 110 E. Pennington St., where the ever-changing Mexico City-inspired menu is famously written on a chalkboard each day. The legendary Flores family-owned El Charro, 311 N. Court Ave., is widely recognized as the nation’s oldest family-owned Mexican restaurant. Anchoring East Congress is the hipsters’ hangout at Hotel Congress’s Cup Café, 310 E. Congress St. If the wind blows just right, you can get drunk on the sweet bouquet of smoking brisket on Congress’s back patio, looking out at sister restaurant Maynards Market & Kitchen on Toole Avenue.
More date-night dining destinations include James Beard Award-winning chef Janos Wilder‘s Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails, 135 S. Sixth Ave.; and Flagstaff import Proper, 300 E. Congress.
The dining choices are dizzying. You can get everything from Asian — Miss Saigon, On A Roll Sushi and Rice House China Thai, all on Congress Street — to rum-centered island cuisine at St. House Rum Bar, 256 E. Congress; and authentic Ethiopian cuisine at Cafe Desta, 758 S. Stone Ave.
Downtown also seems to have more pizza joints per city block than anywhere else in Tucson. New York style thick crust is the specialty at Empire Pizza and Pub, 137 E. Congress, while Reilly Craft Pizza & Drink, in the old Reilly’s Funeral Home at 101 E. Pennington St., specializes in thin-crusted, artisan pies similar in style to the wood-fired Neopolitan pies Bianco is tossing a couple blocks away. There’s also the neighborhood joint of Little Sicily at 110 S. Church Ave.
Coming in September: Fired Pie at 350 E. Congress, right next to the Cadence student housing complex. That’s also where Brian Metzger serves street tacos at the neon-bathed Gio Tacos, a stone’s throw from all things brewski at World of Beer.
The intersection where Broadway and Congress part ways leading to the Fourth Avenue underpass is a hub of activity on any given night. Well-dressed nightclubbers on their way to Hi-Fi Kitchen & Cocktails, 345 E. Congress St., mingle with concert-goers standing in line at the Rialto Theatre, one of five live entertainment venues downtown that attract bands and acts which often skip Phoenix. Bigger names headline the Rialto, 318 E. Congress St., and Fox Tucson Theatre, 17 W. Congress. Local musicians have a home at the more intimate Club Congress, sharing the marquee with a mix of mostly indie national touring acts.
The Fox, which started life as a Vaudeville house and movie theater in 1930, also shows vintage movies. A second movie house, The Screening Room at 127 E. Congress is being renovated into a full-time theater showing current films seven days a week — making it the only full-time movie theater on the streetcar route.
South of Broadway is the heartbeat of Tucson’s performing arts community. The Tucson Symphony Orchestra and Arizona Opera share a home at Tucson Music Hall, 260 S. Church Ave., in the Tucson Convention Center complex. That’s also where you’ll find world-class chamber musicians playing intimate recitals with the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music in Leo Rich Theatre. A few blocks away on Scott Avenue, Arizona Theatre Co. mounts its plays at the historic Temple of Music and Art.
Many of those musicians and actors will come downtown for post-performance cocktails to any one of 13 bars and lounges including Good Oak Bar, 316 E. Congress, owned by Flagstaff transplant and Diablo Burger proprietor Derrick Widmark; or The District Tavern, 260 E. Congress, which bills itself as the only true bar downtown. It has no televisions, charges no cover and has pool tables.