Chef News

Grace Unger Works to Take Tuck Shop Up a Notch

Grace Unger used to eat at a proper tuck shop in Melbourne, when she lived in Australia. It was a cozy reminder of Tuck Shop in central Phoenix, where she and her favorite uncle used to eat together.

“It was our hangout,” says Unger, who grew up in Scottsdale. “We went there all the time.” Unger, who’s a third-generation food industry pro, always wanted to own a restaurant. “I was living in Australia, but I always kept an eye on the Tuck Shop. I thought, if the owners ever put it on the market, I want it.”

She got it, along with her sister, Georgia, and their father, Lee, when restaurateur DJ Fernandes sold the Coronado neighborhood mainstay to the Ungers last January. Shortly after, the trio began plotting the gentle tweaks to Tuck Shop’s menu and bar. Both had been an out-of-the-box success for Fernandes in 2008.

“Everyone loved this restaurant, and so did we,” Unger says. “We wanted to take it to that next level, give it a little lift, without losing anything we loved.”

Tuck Shop’s many fans were wary. “The Coronado neighborhood is a super tight-knit community,” Unger confides, “and many of our regulars are neighbors. So on one side, we have regulars saying ‘Don’t change things!’ and on the other side we’ve got our neighbors saying ‘Don’t ruin our restaurant!’ They were not quiet about it, either. It was a little bit scary.”

The Ungers made good on their promise to keep much of what Tuck fans loved about the cozy Coronado eatery. “The feedback has been great,” she says. “We kept the same chef and all the favorites like fried cheese curds, barbecue ribs, and pork loin. And people would have chased us down the street if we took the chicken and waffles off the menu.”

The plan, she says, was to take every Tuck favorite up a notch. “People liked our spare ribs, but we wanted them to love them. Now we glaze them first, then we grill them. They’re better than before. We added a pork belly dish. Our steak frites is now a filet mignon. Little things that have made a big difference.”

Unger comes from a long line of professional foodies. She grew up making sausages in her grandfather’s food lab in Sedona. Her father worked in the meat industry and ran restaurants.

“Our dad plays a huge role here,” Unger says of Lee. “He knows food, but also how a restaurant should work. And my sister is a total foodie, very organized and with amazing management skills. I’m more about the marketing, the wine, and cocktails.”

Unger’s keen interest in boutique beverages has paid off. Bar sales are up a whopping 30 percent this year already. And if Tuck Shop isn’t still offering house-made tonic water, its wine list has tripled. Unger has turned her attentions to perfecting a classic Tuck martini.

The focus remains on food. “You know how sometimes when you go out to eat, you’re just blown away by a certain dish?” Unger asks. “Our goal is to make Tuck Shop like that, every time you come in.”
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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela