Cafe Reviews

Copper Squares

Fred Unger is my new hero. Okay, I've never actually met the local resort developer, but I've got to believe that someone with his dedication to preserving Arizona's unique character has to be a pretty terrific guy.

Unger's the one who, in the early '90s, revived Paradise Valley's historic Hermosa Inn (circa 1930), and Phoenix's Royal Palms Inn (1926). But rather than bulldozing, as most of our developers like to do, he brought the properties into contemporary fashion without sacrificing a smidgen of the one-of-a-kind character that had made them such Valley treasures. Gorgeous architecture and pure Southwestern style oozes from every nook and cranny.

Then, for good measure, he threw in two incredible restaurants, Lon's (the Hermosa) and T. Cook's (Royal Palms). With his two petite hotels, he brought us boutique resort accommodations in league with properties like Santa Monica's exclusive Shutters on the Beach.

Now, he's turning his golden touch to a pocket of the Valley sorely needing some respectful reinvention — downtown Phoenix. We've come to know the area as Copper Square, a fancy name for a high-rise ghetto that celebrates such elaborate architectural landmarks as St. Mary's Elementary School by flattening them with a wrecking ball.

Unger has purchased the former Professional Building, 12 stories looming over the southeast corner of Central Avenue and Monroe Street. It dates back to 1931. He's turning the tall, art deco gray building with its ornate carvings into a 56-room boutique hotel, 26 condominiums, and retail space. The exterior, frescoes and all, will be cleaned but untouched. The lobby, soaring to a 36-foot-tall ceiling, will be turned into a specialty (read: world-class) restaurant and bar.

For all of Downtown Phoenix Partnership's long, loud activities to bring vibrancy to our faded central city, Unger's single effort is destined finally to do just that. Even without having a clue as to which restaurant he's planning for us, I'm willing to bet that it will bring us real reason to come downtown specifically for fine dining.

On a sweltering, sticky day, I journey downtown to check out the property. The building has sat empty and sad since the mid-1980s, pointing upward like a finger at what's passed for civilized dining along the stretch of Central between Monroe and Washington.

McDonald's. Subway. A handful of restaurants that are pretty good, though not worth traveling to unless we're local office workers escaping windowless cubicles for our lunch hour. Downtown Deli is a keeper, a branch of the popular Miracle Mile operation. And Focaccia Fiorentina is a favorite for its tasty Tuscan sandwiches and penne alla vodka.

Yet how many deli sandwiches, salads, pizza and pasta can we choke down, day in and day out? Hasn't anyone on this block heard of variety?

As I wander the heat-shimmering sidewalk, I discover a new place, Fresh Choice. It's not entirely new, actually, but has new owners and a new name (it was called Cafe One 12, and before that Salads and More). It sounds appealing thanks to its promoted "humongous" salad bar, all I can eat at $6.75. The owner boasts that he purchased the enormous beast on eBay. At least the place is different from its neighbors.

But huh? At 20 feet long, and stocked only along one side, this buffet isn't even big. That chain, Souper! Salad, features more than 60 salad items, including desserts and fresh fruit. Plus, it also includes pasta salads, marinated salads, rice salads, four soup options, a baked potato bar, and starches like cornbread, gingerbread and blueberry bread.

Here, the choices number about 50, including pizza, soups and bread, but I need something with a quicker pulse than ordinary lettuce, vegetables, chopped deli meats and cheeses, pasta salads and pudding. The station even looks old, capped by a little roof that reminds me of a pool table light, studded with backlit stained "glass."

So I skip the salad bar and browse Fresh Choice's printed menu, with its admirably lengthy listing of — surprise — deli sandwiches, salads, pizza and pasta. A lot of other lunchers around me, looking uncomfortable in too-heavy-for-summer office attire, have made the same choice, preferring a chicken walnut raisin salad with mushrooms and cucumbers instead of the bar's boring iceberg.

And as I nibble on my pretty decent albacore tuna salad sandwich, a crunchy sweet mash of fish, water chestnuts, pickle, tomato and lettuce on marble rye, I thank the gods that I'm no longer a corporate cubicle dweller forced to feed on whatever is convenient. That was an unhappy era of way too many fair — but ultimately forgettable — lunches just like this.

There was a dark period about five years ago, when I'd bought the idea that the corporate world was where the good life bloomed. After years of toiling out of my home, cozy in pajamas while I cranked out freelance marketing projects, I was persuaded by a large client that my true destiny lay inside his office doors, producing his ads, public relations campaigns and sales collateral.

I arrived that very first day, dressed as I always had for my meetings with the client: comfortable leggings fancied up with a thigh-length sport coat, and leather Keds sneakers. Immediately, I was summoned by a woman in HR, who wrote me up for defying dress code (leggings considered too revealing, my green socks an unacceptable color). She showed me a manual, too, with pictures she'd cut out of magazines displaying fashion do's and don'ts for her office kingdom (just in case I was too thick to dress myself in the morning based on her verbal descriptions).

My promised private window office turned out to be a lie; they stuck me in a cubicle shared with an executive secretary whose morning was consumed with planning a "working lunch" for the staff. Over the next several hours, she rifled through an alphabetical stack of menus in her file labeled (with an electronic sticker machine) "LUNCH." She clutched the phone until her knuckles swelled, calling cafe after cafe to negotiate her necessary order: sandwiches cut in half; condiments on the side; delivery at exactly 11:45 — not 11:30, not noon — no ketchup anywhere near the building since the company president's wife was obsessed with carpet stains. Nothing that had any odor, either, since the president went insane over smells.

Victim caterer chosen, she circled the office, taking orders for our crew of about 30. She had prepared a special form — type of bread, meat, cheese, vegetables, condiments, pasta or potato salad, brownie or cookie. I neglected to indicate a preferred dessert; she came back to me in a fluster, explaining that, though it was my first day, I really needed to pay attention.

By the time lunch arrived, I was expecting Julia Child to come in bearing trays of some mystical, magical "corporate" cuisine. What I got was, well, Fresh Choice. Different cafe, a less modern menu, but virtually the same, nondescript food I'm eating now.

All this work for an okay Maui chicken salad sandwich, standard with chunks of chicken breast, pineapple, celery and a slick of mayo on sourdough? Would it have killed Fresh Choice to make the selection stand out with some fresh-baked crusty bread (Willo bakery is right in the neighborhood)? How about a little extra effort into a side salad, boring iceberg, green leaf and purple cabbage with sliced tomato? Why not a pint-size selection from Fresh Choice's arsenal of entree salads, like the Mediterranean (romaine, cucumber, red onion, tomato, feta and Kalamata olives in balsamic vinaigrette)?

I don't remember what I ate during that first staff meeting years ago, just that it didn't distract me from wondering how in the world I'd found myself wearing the wrong colored socks in a room full of suits and ties droning on as they "strategized" the schedule of even more meetings for the remaining week. It might have been this very same French dip found at Fresh Choice, an inoffensive yet unimpressive combination of soft white hoagie roll, shaved beef and tissue-thin provolone dunked in a harshly salty jus. Probably not, though, given that the warm sandwich is aromatic, and spillable jus has high stain potential.

The day's soup is fine — an honest French onion topped with nice soggy dark bread, gooey cheese, ample sweet onions and salty, beefy broth — but hardly worth my struggle to find parking along downtown's crowded streets.

Fresh Choice's owner is curious whether I work nearby, suggesting my office might want to use his catering service. I politely decline — after I quit that corporate hell, I swore I would never again fill my face with "because it's there" food.

Besides, I'm saving my appetite for Unger's new operation. His restaurant's planned debut is 2004. I should be good and hungry by then.