Two weeks ago, Old Town Whiskey, Jose Garces' upscale saloon inside The Saguaro hotel in Old Town, shuttered to be used as event space. But unbeknownst to Garces' fans, his modern Mexican restaurant just down the hall was undergoing an arguably worse fate: getting its cojones cut off.
In what appears to be more or less a reverse makeover, Distrito has gone from colorful and lively to brown and boring. But, hey, at least there's the barbacoa. Nope, that's gone, too.
The sprawling space, once filled with an array of bright pink and glitter, as well as plaid and floral patterns on tables, seating, and walls, has been replaced by taupe paint and the wicker and leather furniture from Old Town Whiskey, a few potted plants, and wood tables with centerpieces involving stalks of wheat.
In addition, Distrito's marquee over the bar has vanished, the guacamole and tortilla stand is now a DJ booth (actually, it has been for a year), and the entryway, once filled with brightly painted Día de los Muertos skull masks, has been replaced by a ubiquitous piece of desert art.
Where has the old Distrito gone? For a glimpse of its past, one need only take a peek into the private dining area in the back. There, some of the splashy tables, chairs, and lounge cushions have been crammed together in what feels like more of a storage space than a place to eat.
So what gives with the nondescript hotel-restaurant look? For the answer, I went straight to the source.
In a statement sent to me, Chef Garces had this to say:
"We've made a few changes to the décor like new lounge seating, and for people, like me, who like to enjoy a bite and a drink outside, we've expanded our patio to include two fire pits."
A few changes?
What Garces seemed to want to talk about most was the menu, which, along with the space, has also been updated. New dishes like a shortrib birria, chile relleno, and a pan-roasted duck breast have been added while most all the barbacoa offerings (a category that made the Distrito in Scottsdale different from its Philadelphia location) as well as dishes such as a pork belly pozole verde (which I remember as being particularly stellar) are gone.
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"Over the winter, my chefs and I worked on new Mexican dishes, which you'll see on the spring menu at Distrito," Garces stated. "We want guests to be able to explore the menu by ordering a variety of snacks and small plates or enjoy an entree style dish. At the bar, you'll find new Mezcal drinks like the Fresas Ahumadas with basil, serrano, balsamic syrup, and fresh strawberries alongside classic cocktails."
Although Garces' new food and drink items are a way to keep his restaurant's menu fresh, the real question may be whether patrons will be willing to fork over $13 to $30 for grilled Spanish octopus, braised pork shank, and lamb chops and chorizo in a space that feels more like Anywhere USA than the distinctive home of a James Beard Award and Iron Chef winner.
Time will tell.