TJ Culp knows what he doesn't want in a restaurant.
“I don’t want the guest have to come in here and sift through a book of everything.”
Here’s what he does want, in his own words:
“Keep the wine list between five and 10.
"Keep the wine by the glass — never above $10. Never change that. Sexy little reserve list.
"Keep some cool cocktails.
"And a menu. Start with 12 items.”
The result: starters, mid-courses, and four mains, just like he promised. For starters, there’s a New York strip steak. Carrots, beets. Hamachi. Fryer-less bar snacks during late-night service, to munch alongside craft cocktails, four evenings out of the week. Brunch every Sunday.
He says he’ll see what people are into.
“And just go from there.”
TJ Culp may not yet be a household name, but he’s already making good on his promises, opening his own first spot, called Restaurant Progress, and doing it out-of-pocket, within just days of the target date he gave us back in early November.
This is a considerable feat considering the 25-year-old did the design work and built the space out himself (he used to work alongside his dad in construction).
The colorful brick on the urban patio out back was free from some demo guys, so long as they tore it down and hauled it away.
The west wall, in between the front door and the bar, is decorated with mirrors and antique frames, which preserve patterned fabrics from the couches and other furniture in his grandma’s old house, where he spent time growing up. She now lives in Panama.
“I hope it brings a tear to her eye when she sees it," Culp says.
The bar has been filled with top-notch spirits, including some rare amari, the bitter, herbal Italian liqueurs.
“That’s what I battle with a lot,” Culp says, who first caught the amari bug in Las Vegas in the same fashion many young line cooks do: drinking Fernet after a shift. “I always want the cool shit, but the cool shit is the most expensive, you know? And I’m opening this place on pennies.”
The cocktails (which, as of yesterday, had not been named yet) are built simply from quality spirits and fresh juices done in house. Take, for instance, one drink that combines golden Rhum JM with a touch of chile liqueur and mango puree (among fresh lime and mole bitter from AZ Bitters Lab) — or another, which combines the alpine herb-tinted liqueur Dolin Génépy and cucumber and rose-scented Hendrick’s gin with freshly pressed celery juice and grapefruit simple syrup.
The drinks will be available from open until close, into late night territory from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. every Wednesday through Saturday.
“I think it’s going to be slow,” at first, he says. “I’m going to really have to establish myself. The Melrose neighborhood hasn’t really had a restaurant like this.”
He adds, “The good thing is that Melrose is behind us.”
He knows the key will be staying committed to lat- night service in an area that doesn’t have much of it to offer.
“I think it can be this really cool, intimate hangout spot. I’m not trying to get crazy and I’m not trying to do anything rowdy in here,” says Culp, who, in part, felt drawn to the neighborhood because of its vintage vibes and dive bars. “Just a great place to grab a drink after work … One guy in the kitchen. Doing dishes. Doing everything.”
This is all passion, he says, "all young guys who got tired of the fucking racket in Phoenix. And we’re just here, you know. We’re going to get it done. and we’re going to learn a lot. I’m not saying it’s going to be perfect off the bat. But I’ve gotten this far. Can’t let it go.”
He got the health permit last week. Last night, they hosted a private dinner. Tonight, friends and family. Friday marks the first full dinner and late-night service.
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“Now," he says, "it’s time to have some fun.”
Dinner, Tuesday through Saturday 4-10 p.m.
Late night, Wednesday through Saturday 10 p.m.-2 a.m.
Brunch, Sunday 10 a.m.-3 p.m.