Chef News

Carla Wade Logan of Carly’s Bistro Dishes on Belgian Beer, Roosevelt Row, and a Life in the Industry

With its funky artwork and well-stocked bar, Carly’s Bistro is one of the culinary pillars of downtown Phoenix's Roosevelt Row. The restaurant has been open almost every day since launching more than a decade ago, drawing artists, musicians, and a diehard base of regulars.

At the heart of the business is owner Carla Wade Logan, who opened the bistro with her husband, John Logan, a few years before the Roosevelt renaissance. Logan is an upbeat Bostonian with a long history in Phoenix – she cut her teeth bartending at the long-gone but iconic cocktail lounge Chez Nous, where she learned such old-school traditions as “dirty ice.” Today, Carly’s is well-loved, serving a wide range of cocktails, craft beers, and sandwiches.

How did you end up in Phoenix?
I’m from Andover, just outside of Boston. I have a really good friend from the Cape, and her dad lives here. We really wanted to go to California, of course. I had the intention of going to ASU for like a year or two, and then go to San Francisco. But I found that I really like the Southwest, and when I had the opportunity to leave, I found that I was really embracing [Phoenix]. I moved to the Garfield neighborhood, up the road. That was in the late 90s, so it was a bit different. But being from a pretty dense urban area, I gravitated towards the more urban lifestyle in Phoenix proper. When I met my husband, he was living in an artists’ collective on Central.

People often say that when Carly’s moved in, it was one of the only places on the block.
Pretty much. There were a few others. Kimber Lanning had Modified Arts at the time, and people used to run from Modified to here and back, because the street wasn’t very well lit. It was a different time. When we opened, our largest supporters were artists who lived in the community, because they were the ones that were here all the time. So of course we always had a huge influx of people coming into the neighborhood on First Fridays. You’d be down here on First Friday and think, “Wow, this is so great. How cool, Phoenix has arrived.” We also had a lot of support from businesses and law firms and people working for the county. It’s become so much more walkable and bikeable, so we’re seeing a huge uptick in residents. On a Sunday morning, now you see people jogging with strollers and walking their dogs.

Did you have a background in the industry? And did you come to Phoenix with the intention of opening a restaurant?
I was actually born in Oakland, California, and we lived there till I was eight. My father is a British, French-trained chef. My mom grew up in the Oakland-Berkeley area, and she belonged to a co-op and got produce boxes, which was happening there but not elsewhere in the country. My dad was hired as the sous chef as the St. Francis Hotel in Union Square in San Francisco, so that’s why we were there. When we moved to Boston, he was the executive chef at the Copley Weston. He, coincidentally, used to win the chowder festival every year – which is funny because he’s this British guy. So I was raised to eat everything, including escargot and raw oysters. We always had a huge garden, in Oakland and in Boston. I always worked in the industry. My dad had a catering company for a while, and I washed dishes for him – until he fired me, because I was too slow. But I was raised in restaurants. I always understood the ethic of it and how it works.

How has Carly’s changed over time?
When we first started, the kitchen was behind the bar. It was tiny. The first five years we were open, [my husband and I] did everything. I would be the waitress during the day and then the cook at night. One of the great things about Phoenix in general is the opportunity for people to be entrepreneurs and do it on their own. We could start a restaurant with very little money and make a go of it. It’s been a natural progression – we’ve added more beer handles and tweaked the menu. But we’ve always tried to keep it fresh, easy, casual food that I think is conducive to the urban lifestyle.

Carly’s is essentially a gastropub, but if you’ve been around for 10 years, did you start with a large beer selection, or did that happen over time?
We actually started with a rather large selection of Belgian beers. We had a lot of Trappist beers. When my husband and I were married in 2006, we went to Belgium and the Netherlands. Mainly that was my husband – he always loved Belgian beer. And you’re right, that was just before the American craft movement really took off. There were some great local beers, but it was in its fledgling state. I think we’ve always had a killer beer selection, since the beginning. That’s a model that you see in a lot of cities, but that was something that was new to this neighborhood. To have a full bar and have good quality food – fresh food, not your classic bar fare, like fried chicken tenders – was unusual at the time. You could get a really nice salad with organic greens at 11 p.m., or a panini that had really unique offerings, like sweet onion relish and brie, or tapenade and goat cheese, that kind of thing.

You’re from New England and your husband is from Tucson, but the menu isn’t, like, chowder and tamales. How did you come up with the menu?
I love Mediterranean-influenced food, so with the grilled panini and the hummus and the tapenade and the feta rosa dip, the intention was to have something for everyone as well. So we have the vegan wrap and gluten-free bread. You can accommodate everyone and have bold and unique flavors and not just your classic fare. I think there’s an atmosphere that is very welcoming to everyone, and I don’t think that that’s just Carly’s, but it’s indicative of our neighborhood in general. I think people love that. Everyone is welcome, everyone feels comfortable.

Why are you drawn to Mediterranean food specifically?
I love it. I just do. I’ve traveled in that area of the world, and I had a roommate in college who was Greek. So we’d have gyros, and obviously sandwiches are something that we’ve focused on, and that’s definitely an influence.

When you started, it was just you and your husband. How did you adjust to letting go of certain tasks?
We have a great staff, and we have a relatively low turnover here, compared to a lot of restaurants. We really value our people. We have two managers, who are wonderful. That’s a huge part of our success. I have a stepdaughter who’s 16 and then we have a seven-year-old and a three-year-old. When we had kids, I really had to let go of certain things. That was kind of a natural progression. As our family grew, we grew the staff and the management. It’s truly mom and pop.

Do you have any big future plans for Carly’s? Any changes?
We talk about that a lot, and we’ve talked about expanding the kitchen. We honestly never could afford it, because it’s really expensive to do those sorts of expansions, but hopefully we will be able to add more offerings. Currently we have what’s called a cold kitchen. We don’t have a hood or a grill. And we would like to add those things, to be able to offer more breakfast and things that are more hardy. I think people love what we have and are known for, but we can grow on that.

After trying so many cuisines, what’s one of your favorite things to cook?
At home I make a lot of Italian food and a lot of pastas, and I like to really experiment with sauces. I really like for my kids to have a lot of diversity in what they eat. I find that pastas and sauces really facilitate that, and I find I can make marinara with kale and get the kid to try different things. We have some family recipes that are from my dad – chowder, but he makes a beautiful Maryland polenta crab cake I like to make too. Being that he’s English, Sunday lunch is like a really simple roasted chicken, stuffed with lemons and rubbed with olive oil and herbs, and all of you root vegetables in the pan. You bake it away and it’s always perfect, and the onions are always gorgeous, and the aromas and everything. So I really enjoy that too.
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Robert Isenberg