When Flagstaff restaurateur Paul Moir of Brix Restaurant and Wine Bar and Criollo Latin Kitchen and his good friend and fellow eat-local enthusiast Derrick Widmark of Diablo Burger left me a voice mail saying they had some good news to share, I was delirious. I figured they were expanding their operations to Phoenix, both of them, just as they'd spoken of doing for over a year. It even crossed my mind they were doing something together.
So imagine my disappointment when they told me they're both opening their own new restaurants (yay!) in the historic Rialto Building in downtown Tucson (boo!). But after hearing their reasoning, I can't say I blame them.
Widmark is quick to say, "We don't want to turn this into some Tucson versus Phoenix rivalry thing, but we're excited to see the grassroots, entrepreneurial-driven revitalization that's going on in downtown Tucson. What with all the urban housing and the light rail coming, it's all happening in the next 12 to 18 months."
He and Moir are also excited about what they call the "authenticity" there -- where old buildings are refurbished, not destroyed to put up something new. The Rialto (which dates somewhere between 1912 and 1920) has been purchased by Tucson developer Scott Stitler, whom Widmark describes as a guy with a vision, not just a landlord looking for a monthly paycheck.
"He bought three blocks at the center of Tucson, and he went looking for people to turn those three blocks into the center of the community," says Widmark, who adds that downtown Tucson feels "analogous to what we have in Flagstaff, where our restaurants are an integral part of the city." The Rialto, he says, is "true to place," which creates a comfort level for both Moir and Widmark -- who value history and the notion of fostering community. Moir's new restaurant, called Proper (300 E. Congress), will occupy a 3,000 square foot corner space -- open and light-filled -- in the Rialto Building, which sits directly across from the Hotel Congress (a 100-year-old hotel turned hipster hangout). Moir says the atmosphere will be rustic and casual (like Criollo), while the menu may steer a little closer to the offerings at Brix.
Brunch and dinner will be served seven days a week, often in the form of small plates and shared plates. Doors will open around 8 or 9 am (so that college students might pop in for breakfast) and stay open throughout the day and into dinner service. Moir says a few of Criollo's Mexican and Latin-inspired menu items will most likely show up at Proper as well. He hopes to open in February 2013.
Meanwhile, Widmark is opening Diablo Burger (similar to Flagstaff's model but not a mirror image) two doors down at 312 E. Congress in the same time frame. "We're not parachuting in the same decor," he says, adding that while the menu will be much like Flagstaff's Diablo in the beginning, it will most likely evolve as Widmark forges relationships with farmers, ranchers and purveyors in the area. He wants the place to be "true to Tucson."
Two or three months after Diablo Burger is up and running, Widmark plans to open The Good Oak Bar in the same building at 316 E. Congress, which will feature Arizona beers and wines as well as a limited menu from Diablo Burger's kitchen. The name, "Good Oak," is said to be what "Arizona" means in the Basque language. Well, that's one theory anyway, and apparently one with which ethno-botanist and local food movement guru Gary Nabhan agrees.
"We're really excited," Widmark says. "It's a new market and we have a sense of coming in at the tipping point. The sense of right time, right place is palpable."
Moir adds, "We were looking for authenticity and density, and downtown Tucson has both."
When I ask if Phoenix might ever be a possibility for them, the two promise they haven't lost the faith.