A slight chill in the air didn't stop the crowds from descending on the late night festivities at La Cocina last Saturday evening.
Hip hop beats flowed freely from the downtown venue's indoor cantina into its open courtyard, where throngs of patrons socialized while nursing locally crafted beers and tasty mixed drinks.
Under an overcast sky, visible through the branches of several large trees on the property, people from all walks of life mingled at metal patio tables and dined on late night eats - a selection of tacos, quesadillas and hot dogs from a rustic ranch-style grill.
The "venue with a menu" was staying true to its recent reputation as one of Tucson's hottest night spots.
"It really seems to have come into its own," said local attorney Ryan Anderson, 34, a regular visitor to La Cocina.
His band, Hey, Bucko! played the restaurant's dinner rush earlier in the evening, and Anderson stuck around for post-meal activities.
"It's so much cozier than it used to be," he added. "I love it."
Over the last two years, La Cocina, located in the Old Town Artisans block just east of the Tucson Museum of Art, has evolved from a sleepy little lunch spot into a destination downtown, off the beaten path from the restaurants and venues that are clustered around East Congress and East Broadway.
Late night Cocina events, like its Saturday night dance parties with DJ Herm, have been wildly popular with the 21-and-older crowd, but that's not all they have going.
The restaurant has a regular rotation of local musicians performing from Wednesdays through Sundays, mostly during dinner hours, including bluesman Stefan George on Thursdays and Greg Morton on Fridays.
Once a month, the venue holds a video game night, dubbed the "Thinktank Tendo Tourney," where twenty- and thirtysomethings can relive their childhoods through classic games, such as Tetris, Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario Bros.
Every last Friday of the month La Cocina has its "Coming Out: A Queer Dance Party" for Tucson's LGBT community.
Tuesdays are reserved for nonprofits as part of the venue's Tuesdays for Tucson program.
La Cocina lets organizations host events on the premises - groups ranging from PAWSitively Cats to BorderLinks -and provides them with a portion of the food and drink proceeds at the end of the night.
"We always knew we had to give people a reason to come down here," said La Cocina owner Jo Schneider.
Schneider, 59, has been the driving force behind reshaping the restaurant's image over the last two years.
Her background in food and drink can be traced back to Bentley's House of Coffee & Tea on East Speedway, which she opened in 1984, and is now run by her eldest son, Ben.
She was approached by La Cocina owners Mary Lou and Charles Focht to take over as manager of their fledgling business in the summer of 2010.
"They knew I had been in the business for a very long time," she said. "They needed help. They were getting up in years and felt as if they couldn't handle the restaurant anymore."
Schneider wasn't sure if she was up for the challenge either.
"There is always hesitancy when you invest in something you aren't sure is going to work," she said. "Especially when the venue is 99 percent outdoors. That was our worry."
Still, Schneider saw the potential.
The area had history.
Located in El Presidio Historic District, the Old Town Artisans block served as the stable area for El Presidio San Augustín del Tucson, the original fort built by the Spanish in 1775.
Over the years, the buildings on the property have been home to a grocery store, a brothel, a distillery and apartments, among other businesses.
Beyond its background, Schneider saw the possibilities in what the space could offer Tucsonans.
It was enough for her to accept the position.
"I had always been in love with Old Town Artisans," she said. "I think it is a really magical place."
Things got off to a slow start.
"Our first winter was difficult," Schneider said. "So was our first summer for that matter."
But word of mouth was spreading. Talk of a new spot, with a full lunch and dinner menu, late night eats, live music and regular dance party events, was making its way across the social media spectrum.
Today, both sides of the business are doing their part to attract customers.
Local and national touring bands perform to packed audiences on a large stage, built under Schneider's watch to enhance the concert experience.
And the restaurant is always evolving. La Cocina recently recruited Jack Andrews, a talented chef who has worked in Brooklyn, Manhattan and the San Francisco Bay Area, to revamp its offerings.
"I think the food and the music work hand-in-hand," said Allie Baron, La Cocina's general manager. "We couldn't survive if we just had a restaurant or if we just had a venue. That is what makes this place so interesting and appealing."
Schneider said she couldn't have made La Cocina work without the help of her dedicated staff, many of whom started with her two years ago and stuck with the restaurant through its lean times.
The employees at La Cocina wear many hats.
Baron, 29, handles most of the late night events, but also books the bands and bartends.
Fellow bartender Parker Arriaga, came up with idea for the monthly video game tournaments.
Arriaga, 28, is a Portland, Ore. transplant with a fondness for old consoles like the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis.
When he discovered several La Cocina customers were also into gaming, he pitched the idea for a monthly competition to management.
"They were super down," Arriaga said.
On good nights, the tournaments bring between 50 and 80 players and spectators.
"We are so fortunate to have this concentration of creative people with such an incredibly diverse array of hobbies and skills," Baron said. "It allows us to keep it different and interesting all of the time."
Not every day is perfect at La Cocina.
When the weather acts up, be it extreme heat, torrential downpours or intense cold, people tend to stay away from the mostly outdoor space.
"La Cocina is so dependent on fair weather," said bar manager Churchill Brauninger. "When it is nice outside, there is a line out the door. When it is 38 degrees, no one comes out."
In an effort to maintain a constant customer base, Schneider and her crew have plans to maximize what they have, by turning one of their underutilized buildings into a Pan-European-style pub by early summer.
The building, on the southeast corner of the Old Town Artisans block, once served as one of Tucson's first gas stations and was an art gallery space before Schneider turned it into a dining area.
Using the working title, The Presidio Pub, the locale will serve an international selection of beers as well as cuisine from Spain, Belgium, England and other parts of Europe.
Brauninger, who Schneider tapped to run the remodel, likened the new pub and its role at La Cocina to the food and beverage set-up at Hotel Congress.
"If you sit in the tap room at Congress, you have a completely different experience than if you are sitting in the Cup Café," he said. "It is all under the same umbrella, but two radically different experiences."
The major benefit of using the space is that it is the only building La Cocina has that has proper air conditioning and heating.
"This is going to be a neighborhood bar that is weather resistant," Brauninger said. "People can come here 365 days a year."
Schneider, who bought the restaurant outright from the Fochts last August, said the new addition will help boost its customer base and make it a more enjoyable and diverse destination.
"I could never compete with what is happening on Congress Street," Schneider said. "We are not into competing with anyone. We just want to be part of what is happening downtown."
201 N. Court Ave.
• Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Mondays; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesdays; 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Wednesdays-Fridays; 10 a.m.-2 a.m. Saturdays; and 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays.
• Information: For a full schedule of upcoming events visit lacocinatucson.com or call 622-0351
Within Walking Distance
Old Town Artisans
201 N. Court Ave.
A selection of shops can be found within the same Old Town Artisans complex as La Cocina, each one dealing in different types of arts, crafts and jewelry, including the Old Town Pot Shop and the world import business, Tolteca Tlacuilo.
Tucson Museum of Art
140 N. Main Ave.
The Tucson Museum of Art sits on a historic block due west of La Cocina. Established in 1924 as the Tucson Fine Arts Association, the museum moved to its current location in 1975 and features a number of permanent collections, as well as visiting exhibitions. One of its most recent featured exhibits is "Han and Beyond - The Renaissance of China: The James Conley Collection," which includes more than 100 pieces from the Neolithic period to the Qing Dynasty.
Before you visit, take advantage of Café a la C'art on the museum grounds. The eatery features an eclectic selection of breakfast and lunch options seven days a week, as well as dinner service Thursdays-Saturdays.
Arizona Historical Society Downtown History Museum
140 N. Stone Ave.
This branch of the Arizona Historical Society, open Tuesdays-Fridays, puts the focus squarely on downtown life, with displays that reflect Tucson's fire departments, barbershops, drugstores and other early businesses.
The original El Charro Café
311 N. Court Ave.
It's the Mexican restaurant that started it all. The original El Charro Café downtown, north of La Cocina, is the first location of the local chain run by the Flores family. It also claims to be the nation's oldest Mexican restaurant.
El Charro is celebrating its 90th birthday this year and has been featured in national publications, as well as on television shows such as the Travel Channel series, "Andrew Zimmern's Bizarre World."
The Tucson Museum of Art is just one of the attractions within walking distance of La Cocina. Find a few highlights at azstarnet.com/ entertainment