Downtown Phoenix

Party Bar Gun Violence in Roosevelt Row Prompts Neighborhood Clash of Cultures

The Golden Margarita is named for its signature cocktail, made with Don Julio, simple syrup, Triple Sec, and sour mix for $14.
The Golden Margarita is named for its signature cocktail, made with Don Julio, simple syrup, Triple Sec, and sour mix for $14. Elias Weiss

Bar patrons on a recent Saturday night heard gunshots minutes after the last call for alcohol inside a party club that sits in the artsy Roosevelt Row neighborhood.

The incident on January 2 was the third time guns were drawn and weapons were fired in the vicinity of a fledgling Mexican food restaurant and bar, the Golden Margarita.

The establishment sits near the corner of East Roosevelt and Third Streets. It operates as a Mexican restaurant during the day and transforms into a club after sunset.

Visitors dole out $1,000 for the best table reservation next to the DJ stage, not counting the cost of bottle service of alcoholic beverages. The cavernous bar is on the ground floor of the Roosevelt Row Apartment Homes. It hosts live rappers, television wrestling match nights, and features “bottle girls” donning sultry attire.

Gun violence has scared some residents who consider the neighborhood’s main appeal to be luxury apartments but also walkable living. Neighbors complained they don’t feel safe on the streets at night if gunshots are going to become the norm. Critics claim that the party bar does not fit in a community known for chic wine and cocktail bars such as Coup De Grace and The Lost Leaf.

Roosevelt Row was once home to railroad workers in Phoenix and was long derelict in places, but now community churches sit across the street from bustling clubs. Real estate developers took the lead to renovate, retrofit, and sometimes tear down the old buildings. As a result, the neighborhood has continued to gentrify, and the cost to live there has been increasing every year.

Renting a studio apartment inside the Roosevelt Row Apartment Homes costs $1,750 each month. For a three-bedroom apartment, it will set renters back $3,155 each month.

click to enlarge The Golden Margarita, a Mexican food restaurant and bar in Roosevelt Row, sits at the base of a block-long upscale apartment complex. - ELIAS WEISS
The Golden Margarita, a Mexican food restaurant and bar in Roosevelt Row, sits at the base of a block-long upscale apartment complex.
Elias Weiss
Roosevelt Row markets itself as a sophisticated arts district with its own commuter light rail station, art galleries, bars, restaurants, and bungalows. The monthly arts fair First Friday draws hundreds of revelers.

But a representative for Golden Margarita claims that Roosevelt Row is changing as a community once again and the establishment fits in the newest esthetic drawing in people who want to eat, drink and party — not just appreciate art.

“You have an old Roosevelt Row and a new Roosevelt Row trying to figure out how to blend and grow together,” said Craig Miller, a partner at Arizona Liquor Industry Consultants in Mesa.

Miller is responsible for representing the Golden Margarita during permit hearings at the city and state levels.

“It’s a tough corner,” he said about the intersection.

The Golden Margarita replaced Paz Cantina, a Mexican restaurant and cocktail bar in late 2020. Instead of tasting menus and jazz music, the party bar hosted televised fights and Ghanaian comedian Michael Blackson for a “late-night” show.

“It’s not just art shops and mom-and-pop stores anymore,” Miller said.
click to enlarge Mexican and American bar fare make up the menu of this downtown restaurant. But after the sun goes down, the establishment slings just booze. - ELIAS WEISS
Mexican and American bar fare make up the menu of this downtown restaurant. But after the sun goes down, the establishment slings just booze.
Elias Weiss
But neighbors claimed that gun violence was not even a consideration in the densely populated enclave until the Golden Margarita opened.

Tensions between some neighbors and the establishment are palpable.

“It’s sad to see how this place is ruining our neighborhood,” said Sara Grey, a resident in her 30s who lives across the street.

Several times Grey claims that she’s seen people “open fire at this place.”

In addition to last month's incident, Phoenix police officers responded to two other shootings in March 2021.

One employee at the bar was working at the club when all three shooting incidents occurred but claims she isn't deterred from the neighborhood or the job.

"I just love it here," said Brejana Herron, server manager for The Golden Margarita. "I love the atmosphere. I love the vibes."

But that’s not the last of the company’s problems because now it is struggling to keep its boozy drinks flowing.

The city of Phoenix took action to block the Golden Margarita’s state liquor license application at every monthly hearing since September 2021.

Alcohol sales account for just shy of 60 percent of the club's revenue.

City officials asked the Arizona Department of Liquor Licenses and Control to reject the bar’s plea in September, October, and November.
click to enlarge The Golden Margarita in Roosevelt Row. - ELIAS WEISS
The Golden Margarita in Roosevelt Row.
Elias Weiss
“It has been super frustrating,” said Miller.

He claims that the city is trying to block the licensing process for financial reasons, namely that the city tried to collect an old debt from Paz Cantina.

Sergeant Michael Walker, who works on the Phoenix Police Department’s liquor enforcement team, declined to disclose why the city is fighting the Golden Margarita in state liquor board hearings.

There is “sensitive information included in the denial,” is all Walker would say. He declined to elaborate.

The Golden Margarita has a temporary state liquor license that expires on April 7. Its first temporary license was issued in September 2021, followed up three months later with a second one.

The Golden Margarita expects to plead its case to the Phoenix City Council this spring. Unless city officials change their mind, it’s back to the liquor board for another hearing.

The state previously revoked its liquor license last year for an undisclosed reason, according to the state liquor department.

Miller said his client, Golden Margarita owner Gem Ray, is a Scottsdale club promoter who was trained as a chef at the Le Cordon Bleu.

"It’s been an uphill battle,” Miller said. "He’s working through all these headaches."

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Elias Weiss is a staff writer at the Phoenix New Times. A native of Charlotte, North Carolina, he reported first for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and was editor of the Chatham Star-Tribune in Southern Virginia, where he covered politics and law. In 2020, the Virginia Press Association awarded him first place in the categories of Government Writing and Breaking News Writing for non-daily newspapers statewide.
Contact: Elias Weiss