Roosevelt Row, these days, is a place closely associated with the bittersweet feeling of watching your old neighborhood changing before your eyes. More than a few landmarks — familiar murals and shops — have disappeared in the last few years, and the landscape seems to be shifting quickly and inevitably toward an urban tableau of sleek yet mundane high-rise condos, sprinkled with fancy sandwich shops and yoga studios.
It’s easy enough to imagine what the neighborhood might look like in a few more years: denser, busier, but also drained of some of the character and color that made it so desirable in the first place.
If the changing face of Roosevelt Row doesn’t make you the least bit nostalgic, or you’re generally optimistic about Phoenix’s emerging downtown, you might point to The Dressing Room as evidence that change can be a good thing.
The Dressing Room debuted next door to monOrchid earlier this year, and it’s already making Roosevelt Row a more interesting place to eat. In its own way, it succeeds in reconciling the neighborhood’s past with its future. Sitting in the roughly 500-square-foot restaurant, with its well-preserved brick walls and artfully scratched-up cement floors, feels likes having one foot in the past and the other in the future. There is a welcoming, well-worn quality about the restaurant, even though it happens to be one of the newer kids on the block.
You can thank the restaurant’s operators, Troy Watkins and Kyu Utsunomiya, who together form the restaurant group Conceptually Social. The restaurant veterans understand the appeal of adaptive reuse, so instead of tearing down walls, the team has built on the space’s storied past. It starts with the restaurant’s name, of course, which alludes to the building’s history as a dressing room for Phoenix’s first drag bar.
The restaurant’s central physical attribute, apart from the jewel-toned JB Snyder mural on the side of the building, is the intimacy of its dining room. “Intimate,” of course, is usually a nicer way of saying small. But there is something genuinely amenable and welcoming about the space.
The centerpiece of the room is the open kitchen, a small, narrow space framed by modern pendant lights, and outfitted with enough counter seating for about a half-dozen guests. The dining room itself only has a handful of tables, but the space is augmented by a small patio behind the building, which is partially hidden from the street.
The general ambiance is hip without being obnoxious, a rare and elusive register built out of careful design and great service. Someone greets you at the door immediately, so you’re not left stranded awkwardly in the restaurant’s tiny doorway, and service tends to be breezy and friendly. Bold, oversize local art, plus cheeky tabletop décor — glass dispenser terrariums filled with miniature plastic animals — make for a fun, relaxed setting.
You’ll want to spend some time with the cocktail menu, which dispenses dangerously smooth concoctions like The Snoop, a gin-and-juice drink dressed up with aperol and punctuated by the irresistible perfume of fresh grapefruit juice.
A notable nonalcoholic drink is chicha morada, a traditional Peruvian summer drink made from purple corn. It’s lightly spiced with cinnamon and cloves, and it makes a good prelude for just about anything on the menu.
The first time I heard anything about the menu at The Dressing Room, I heard it described as “elevated shack food.” That description didn’t immediately resonate with me — what kind of shack are we talking about, exactly?
The restaurant’s printed menu, however, describes the offerings as “food from streets, beaches, carts, and trucks,” which might give you a better idea of the restaurant’s overall tenor and philosophy. This is casual food, the kind you might eat standing up, usually with your bare hands, the juices dripping onto a paper boat. Food that is universally irresistible.
That means a globally inflected menu of dishes like burgers and tacos, which are spruced up with culinary panache, rendering them even more tempting than usual.
And so you’ll find starter snacks like French fries, beautifully hand-cut and crispy, tossed in what seems like fairy dust. The fairy dust, it turns out, is a very subtle and delicious scattering of chile pepper, lime, and salt. The fries are served with dipping sauces, including a very smooth and rich avocado crema, which makes frequent appearances across the menu.
Few restaurants, even deeply casual gastropubs, dare to put a breakfast burrito on their dinner menu. For this alone, I heartily salute The Dressing Room, which has given us a gorgeously lush flavor bomb known as the All Day Burrito. It bulges with cheesy scrambled eggs, pico, and avocado, and is laced throughout with extra-crispy hunks of bacon and hash browns. Every bite crackles with texture. It’s seamlessly wrapped up in a thick flour tortilla, which has been gently browned on the griddle, giving it a little extra crunch. Sliced neatly in half, it’s about as elegant-looking and delicious as a breakfast burrito gets.
Something called the “Classic Burger” is probably not going to immediately capture your attention, but perhaps it should. It makes no claims of novelty or pedigree — there is no buffalo or ostrich or specialty beef blend involved. It’s simply a very well-made burger, wherein every element seems to be perfectly in proportion to everything else. The patty is hefty and beautifully seasoned, as are the crisp, homemade butter pickles, which are a touch spicy. And it’s squeezed into a well-toasted English muffin. The classic burger is slightly more satisfying than the restaurant’s fancier RoRo Burger, which comes accessorized with gruyere cheese, gastrique onion, and some spicy Russian sauce.
There are tacos, of course, although not much like the kind you’ll find at most Mexican street stalls. That doesn’t make something like the house veggie taco any less delicious, though. At the heart of the veggie taco, there’s a gorgeous clump of queso Oaxaca, which has been beer-battered and deep-fried to utter perfection. It’s akin, essentially, to an oversize mozzarella stick, but with the deliriously rich lactic tang of queso Oaxaca. The fried cheese is dressed up with diced sweet potato and a scattering of cabbage and Peruvian corn. Altogether, the taco is wonderful.
The TJ Taco, a take on classic breaded fish tacos, is also quite good, if slightly less memorable. The beer battered white fish is cleanly fried, with a nice airy crispness. A dollop of avocado crema adds a lovely creaminess to every bite.
You’ll find the so-called global component of the menu reflected in dishes like the Korean yakatori, a play on Japanese skewered chicken. Here, the dish is reimagined using Korean marinated rib eye. The steak was nicely charred on a recent visit, and wrapped in a fragrant, vaguely sweet peanut sauce. Unlike traditional yakatori, the meat is bundled with a very good miso-laced slaw and tucked into a lettuce cup. It’s a dish designed to be consumed quickly and at will, not unlike a street taco. It’s a slightly drippy, messy dish, but too good to ignore, even if you happen to be on a first date.
There are lighter options, including a satisfying cold soba salad. The thin, glassy noodles are buried under a colorful mosaic of dried seaweed and diced veggies — purple cabbage, carrots, snap peas, avocado — all of it dressed in a subtly fragrant miso vinaigrette. It has the sort of beachy, fishy appeal that sushi-lovers will appreciate.
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There is only one dessert option, a churro ice cream sandwich that features a thick slab of Tahitian vanilla bean gelato that’s cemented between two sugar-encrusted, freshly fried churros. The results are seriously good, and this dish alone is reason enough to put The Dressing Room on your regular lunch or dinner rotation.
With a playful, slightly twisty menu of refined street food, The Dressing Room is one of the most satisfying new restaurants in downtown Phoenix. And though it might be the new kid on Roosevelt Row, it already feels right at home.
The Dressing Room
220 East Roosevelt Street
Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Classic burger $9.50
Veggie tacos $7
All Day Burrito $8
Korean yakatori $9