In the three years since City Bakery opened its doors to the hungry hipsters of downtown Phoenix, the whole area has undergone a whirlwind of change.
First, the mood was pure excitement and optimism. Suddenly, people became interested in downtown revitalization, and places like City Bakery — an outpost of Scottsdale's Arcadia Farms, which also does a brisk business in feeding visitors to the Phoenix Art Museum, The Heard Museum, and the Arizona Science Center — were considered examples of progress, signs of a central Phoenix pulse.
Tucked into part of a 1918 warehouse that had been renovated and turned into the cavernous Bentley Projects art gallery, along with a small branch of the Poisoned Pen Bookstore, the cafe was (and still is) a stylish place to nosh on a sandwich, surf the Internet on your laptop, and people-watch in an otherwise deserted neighborhood just a few blocks south of the ballpark. With food, books, and high-end artwork all in one historically preserved location, it was an urbanist's dream come true.
The euphoria came to a temporary halt last year when city inspectors discovered numerous building code violations and shut the whole complex down for two weeks — a crippling blow to business in the middle of the sluggish summer. Poisoned Pen never did bounce back, closing its doors earlier this year, while City Bakery has since cut back on its hours, eliminating its breakfast menu and weekend hours. What a shame. No doubt, the ongoing tangle of nearby construction has kept people away, as well.
Right now, it feels like the downtown restaurant scene is in a weird sort of limbo, stuck between too much bad news — namely, the places closing or struggling to stay in business along the light rail — and hopeful bursts of good news about upcoming projects, such as the ambitious CityScape development, which just broke ground a few weeks ago at Central Avenue and Jefferson and will someday include an AJ's.
Best-case scenario, it'll be delayed gratification. Surely, downtown will be a lot more happening in a couple of years, but what's going on in the meantime? I'm hungry right now.
Thankfully, City Bakery is still rockin', and the food's completely craveable. It might've been considered a trendy spot when it first opened, but style never edged out substance.
So while the place certainly looks good — clean, cool Ikea-chic, in a mod green and natural wood seats, high industrial ceilings, and an appealing outdoor patio draped with shade sails — the real reason to frequent City Bakery is gourmet salads, addicting sandwiches, and all kinds of freshly baked desserts. Frequent refills of homemade limeade are an extra perk.
This is no dainty, girly cafe. Sit down to a salad, and you'll be digging into an enormous pile of veggies. Same goes with the sandwiches — they're quite filling, especially with a side of white bean salad, tossed with tomato and cucumber. And even the healthful-sounding dishes turn out to be guilty pleasures.
Feeling too disciplined to indulge in the hot ham and cheese sandwich, layered with rosemary-infused ham, onion relish, and smoked mozzarella? Don't worry. The veggie melt more than makes up for it, with a soft, almost creamy mélange of sweet, warm, oven-cured tomatoes, tender portobello mushrooms, roasted artichokes and peppers, tangy olive spread, goat cheese, and a thick layer of hummus on a grilled ciabatta roll. The intense flavors and luscious textures make it one of the tastiest things on the menu.
Likewise, you can blow your diet on a pressed chicken baguette with brie, applewood-smoked bacon, and caramelized onions, or take the lighter route with moist herb-roasted chicken, oven-cured tomatoes, roasted artichokes, goat cheese, pesto, and fresh basil. Either way, you'll eat until you're stuffed, probably smiling 'til the last bite (if you can make it that far).
The curry chicken here is awesome — a chunky chicken salad, with an aromatic dose of mild spice. Raisins, peanuts, and diced apples give it a sweet spin, with some chewiness and crunch. You can get it on whole wheat bread, or better yet, on top of baby greens, drizzled with raspberry dressing. City Bakery also has a great caprese salad with tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, arugula, basil, roasted artichokes, and pesto dressing. If you're willing to sacrifice the artichokes, you can get almost the exact same thing as a sandwich, on cheese foccacia.
The City Chop salad wasn't as substantial as I'd hoped. Thanks to sopressata, salami, smoked turkey, provolone, chick peas, olives, tomatoes, and a light vinaigrette, the Italian-inspired flavors were delicious, but I found myself picking the bits of meat out from the lettuce. Surprisingly, the mayo-free Mediterranean tuna salad turned out to be a better option, with huge chunks of albacore, tomato wedges, and hard-boiled eggs. I like salads with a lot of toppings, and this had plenty: cucumbers, roasted red peppers, and onion jazzed up a bed of baby greens with herb dressing.
I've eaten at City Bakery plenty of times without ordering dessert, but not without a second thought. If the sight of brownies and scones and muffins compromises your willpower, then don't look in the general direction of the counter at the end of the room, where all the baked goods are piled under shiny cake domes and displayed on shelves in a big glass case.
Cookies are the easiest to justify. Come on, it's "just" a cookie, right? Uh huh. I told myself that, too, reasoning that I needed something to nibble on while downing a cup of coffee before heading back to the office. A crisp, chewy chocolate chip cookie with walnuts usually feels innocent enough, but City Bakery makes them so big that I sometimes ended up with dessert leftovers. A miniature key lime tart, with a thick, chewy crust, hit the spot on a recent visit, and a couple weeks ago, I indulged in an adorable Halloween cupcake, with moist, buttery white cake and vivid orange icing.
If you're looking for a bright spot downtown, City Bakery should be on your radar. It's worth seeking out.