There are few places in central Phoenix as beloved as Lux, the gourmet coffee bar that has evolved over the past decade into more than just a place to sip espresso. Since owner Jeff Fischer made the decision to expand the coffee bar back in 2011 — relocating it from its previous space adjacent to Pane Bianco to its current stand-alone location just a few feet away on the corner of Central and Turney avenues — the café has become a case study for what urban designer folks might call thirdspace placemaking. For many, Lux is the ultimate central Phoenix thirdspace: not home, not work, but a third place that’s nearly as familiar — and with the added perks of free Wi-Fi and the life-affirming scent of freshly roasted coffee beans in the air at almost all hours of the day.
It’s not hard to see why Lux has become a home away from home for many regulars. The Lux space — loose, informal, and singularly cool — has an appeal that only grows the longer you spend time in it. Still, some scoff at the café’s boutique, hipster sensibility: There’s the warm glow of MacBooks at every turn, and a self-consciously eclectic music playlist vibrates through the house speakers on any given night. There are the vintage trappings of teal-colored Olivetti typewriters, mostly decorative, plunked across a long, wooden communal table in the café’s main room, and a menu of slightly overcomplicated and pricey coffee drinks.
But stepping into Lux can also be kind of exhilarating, the space filled with the slightly chaotic vibe generated by a constant hum of movement and conversation. The average nightly crowd at Lux might run the gamut from college students in study circles to retirees working on their first novel, or perhaps strangers meeting and making small talk out on the café’s small outdoor patio. Bits of conversations and laughter are as thick in the air as the scent of espresso. Lux is the neighborhood coffeehouse as a modern-day campfire, the unofficial living room for self-described creatives in central Phoenix, and a temporary refuge for anyone looking to stave off the boredom and loneliness that comes from working alone in a dorm or apartment or cubicle.
And, as it turns out, Lux is also a great place to eat. At first glance, you may not even notice that Lux has a kitchen, until you stand back and catch sight of the small, nimble crew of chefs working in the sliver of open kitchen situated just beyond the coffee bar.
So, you make your way past the assemblage of handsome, tufted midcentury furniture — casually worn and broken in for you already — past the big, splashy pop art on the walls, to stand in the line that has already formed at the counter. There’s nearly always a line at Lux, but that only gives you more time to gape at the impressive dessert display — a daily rotating assortment of artful house-made cakes, brownies, cookies, vegan donuts, and other treats. At the other end of the main room, Lux also has a separate low-slung bar where you can order wine, craft beer, or cocktails.
As for food, the recently expanded menu delivers mostly straightforward, classic American comfort food, served with casual panache on mismatched china dishes that, during a particularly busy evening, you may end up having to balance on your lap when the only seat available happens to be on one of the communal sofas.
If you’re not bothered by such informalities, there’s much to enjoy on the dinner menu, which is available until midnight every day. On any given night, the small but able Lux kitchen delivers an excellent grilled chicken breast, which is carved into neat strips and served on a heap of slightly chewy risotto. The chicken, the unequivocal star of the plate, is exquisitely juicy and well-seasoned with pepper and lemon.
A pulled-pork plate, piled generously with tender, stringy, and lightly seasoned pork, is served on a mound of exceptionally buttery and smooth polenta that nearly outshines the flavor of the pork. But Lux’s saucy, slightly-smoky pulled pork, which may seem slightly underwhelming at first bite, grows on you over the course of a meal.
The New York strip plate, which at $19 is the priciest dinner entrée, is excellent. The healthy-sized steak, cooked to a perfect medium rare, is served with a buttery mass of garlic mashed potatoes and gently steamed broccoli. And there’s also a wonderful bacon cheeseburger available nightly, which is dressed up with a toasted English muffin and melded together with liberal amounts of creamy gruyere.
If you stop in for lunch, you’ll find a variation of Lux’s main dinner offerings — chicken, steak, and pulled pork — reconfigured as gourmet sandwiches and served with either roasted veggies or a simple green salad. There’s a wonderful steak-and-cheese sandwich on grilled, thick-cut white bread, the hunks of beef rich and flavorful and dripping in melted fontina cheese. And Lux’s signature grilled chicken breast is transmuted into an exceptionally good sandwich. The juicy breast, wedged into a ciabatta loaf and layered with thin slices of tart apple and gruyere, is dressed lightly in a well-balanced honey Dijon sauce that makes every bite sing.
Mac ’n’ cheese has become a staple snack at Lux, and it’s available in three tasty variations for lunch or dinner. You can order it straight up, the creamy noodles topped with a nice, glossy cap of baked cheese. You can order it with jalapeno and bacon, for added blasts of salt and fire. Or, you can order the pesto fontina version, which is exceptionally saucy and garlicky and, like all the mac ’n’ cheeses at Lux, comes served in an oversize ceramic coffee cup.
Breakfast is available well into the afternoon during the weekends at Lux, and it’s worth stopping in for Aunt Ida’s biscuits and gravy, which you can order either with sausage or chorizo. The chorizo is an inventive spin that works well in the dish, spicing up the rich gravy with a pleasing, vinegary kick. Another homespun breakfast dish, Aunt Gladys’ homemade salsa with eggs and the house Tender Belly bacon, is as straightforward and satisfying as anything you might find in your favorite small-town diner. The bacon, cut thick and cooked shatteringly crisp, is layered over a creamy egg scramble that arrives bubbling over with white cheddar.
And there’s the Dutch pancake, an enormous, thin, eggy crepe that’s crisped up slightly and lavished with seasonal berries and airy puffs of the house-made whipped cream. It’s the kind of dish that incites small talk between strangers; as you carry the golden, oversize pancake plate back to your table, someone may ask you what the dish is called, and whether it’s any good. The answer to the second question, not surprisingly, is yes, and you might find yourself chatting with the stranger well into breakfast.
This is Lux, after all.
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4402 North Central Avenue
Hours: Sunday through Thursday 6 a.m. to 12 a.m.; Fridays and Saturdays 6 a.m. to 2 a.m.
Grilled chicken breast with risotto $15
English muffin burger with gruyere $12
Steak & cheese sandwich $12
Dutch pancake with fruit $9