Cafe Reviews

Hanny's in Downtown Phoenix Offers Style Over Substance

In the years before the Metro Light Rail became a fixture in downtown Phoenix, before Cityscape and other high-rise projects began to reshape the city skyline, charting the downtown food scene was not exactly a formidable task. In those days, the roster of downtown dining options amounted to not much more than a handful of delis, cafes, and lounges, a scene designed almost exclusively for the nourishment of the 9-to-5 business crowd.

Hanny’s, the stylish restaurant and bar that opened at the southwest corner of First and Adams streets back in 2008, represents something of a turning point in the recent history of downtown Phoenix dining. When it opened almost a decade ago, Hanny’s offered a distinctly grown-up destination for eating and drinking, a chic alternative to the corporate hotel bars and pint-and-longneck sports pubs scattered around downtown. And in a district where late-night eating still remains mostly confined to hotel 24-hour room service menus, Hanny’s late-night kitchen service quickly made the restaurant a rare outpost for noshing into the wee hours. You might say that Hanny’s has helped herald a new era for downtown Phoenix, easing its transformation from the place you go to watch a Suns game or answer a jury summons, to a burgeoning destination for after-hours eating and imbibing.

At Hanny’s, the main draw has never really been the expansive bar menu, with its Euro-inspired aperitifs, vintage cocktails, and popular $5 martinis. Nor has it been the food menu, a Mediterranean-inspired collection of pizzas, sandwiches, and entrees that straddle the line between casual and fine dining. No, the main draw has always been Hanny’s itself, a singular downtown space that feels at once historic and coolly modern. It’s often cited as perhaps the city’s best example of International-style design, with its stark exterior, curving concrete walls, high vaulted ceilings, and gleaming terrazzo floors. For nearly four decades, the space belonged to the Hanny’s department store chain, which explains the window display alcoves and rows of unmarked dressing rooms that have been converted into unisex restrooms.

Hanny’s is owned by restaurateur Karl Kopp, who also owns AZ88 in Scottsdale and several other bars and restaurants in the Midwest and New York. Kopp rehabbed the old department store with help from the Scottsdale designer Janis Leonard, who had become a style icon before her untimely death in 2014. Leonard’s glamorous reimagining of the space remains one of the restaurant’s most appealing qualities. There are tongue-shaped leather couches, sitting laconically behind glass display windows, and mannequins artfully transformed into otherworldly creatures with rhinestones, beads, and deer antlers. And, of course, there are the aforementioned dressing room bathrooms, accessible only through a mildly disorienting mirrored hallway.
Down on the ground floor, diners sit at heavy, imposing white granite tabletops, which are nicely softened by fresh white mums, flickering candlelight, and cozy leather booths. There’s a large island bar, staffed by nimble servers outfitted in sterile white uniforms that resemble something like lab coats. The kitchen, meanwhile, is so quiet and hidden from view, you might not guess it was there, except for the fact that servers emerge from an unmarked door carrying trays bearing pizzas and steak.

Hanny’s, then, is an undeniably stylish and unique space, a triumph of the adaptive reuse concept that has become all the rage lately. The restaurant/bar has all the makings of the perfect downtown destination, save for the absence of one essential ingredient: great food. The menu, which has remained more or less the same since its debut eight years ago, is remarkably lackluster in flavor and preparation.

Take, for example, a standard bar fare appetizer like bruschetta, which here amounts to a plate of plain crostini paired with a relish of chopped green and Kalamata olives, basil, and cherry tomatoes. The briny, peppery relish is crisp and bright, but there’s an air of indifference about its preparation that makes the dish hard to love. Attention to small details – grilling the bread, or perhaps lightly brushing it with oil, for example – could help make this simple, somewhat bland starter infinitely more craveable.

A highlight from the appetizer menu is the shrimp prosciutto. The four large shrimp, grilled to juicy perfection, are wrapped with thin strips of prosciutto and served with an arugula garnish. It’s a simple and nicely prepared dish, which is only slightly marred by its odd presentation; there’s so much arugula filler on the plate, you’ll wonder if you unwittingly ordered a salad with your shrimp.

Cauliflower calabrese, meanwhile, is a veggie starter featuring a handful of grilled florets, served with a medley of chopped green bell peppers, onions, and mushrooms. It’s a fine but slightly overseasoned dish that plays a little too loose with the olive oil and red pepper flakes. Mostly though, the pile of chopped veggies makes for an unusual appetizer, appearing more like something you might find sandwiched between layers of lasagna than a classic shareable plate.

Hanny’s offers a popular menu of Roman-style pizzas. There are about 10 variations of these thin-crust, oblong-shaped pies on the menu, most of which are skimpily dressed with ingredients like San Marzano tomato sauce and a light smattering of imported cheeses and meats. The kitchen may be stingy with the sauces and toppings, but the main offense is the pizza crust, a shatteringly thin and slightly stale base that may remind you of saltine crackers that have sat in the pantry a little too long. On a recent visit, the white prosciutto e mela pizza was layered with pasty fontina cheese and papery slices of prosciutto and green apple, a lovely melding of sweet and tart flavors that was nearly overwhelmed by the pie’s unpleasantly hard crust.

Sandwiches are not much better, built on parched ciabatta loaves that could badly use some kind of dressing or condiments. The best option is probably the roast beef, which might be more accurately described as a ribeye steak sandwich, stacked with some crispy Nueske bacon, a fried egg, and arugula. The bacon helps glue the whole thing together, but the sandwich is still missing some kind of dressing to bind all the ingredients and coax more flavor from the meats and veggies.

There are only three dinner entrees on the Hanny’s menu, including a Tuscan steak served with “grilled new potatoes” and onion strings. On a recent visit, the modestly-sized charred ribeye was well seasoned, but a little on the chewy side, and the “new potatoes” appeared to be not much more than a single fingerling chopped into quarters. The onion strings, meanwhile, were wispy, oily things, sliced so thin that much of their flavor and texture was nearly indiscernible.

Another option is the pork Milanese, served with the house potatoes and onion strings. The pork loin, while nicely breaded and seasoned, is tough and dry, requiring you to saw away at the meat until you can extract your next bite. A slightly better option is the house pork chop, a thick cut that’s delivered to your table with a beautifully brown sear. Sadly, the gorgeous sear belies a tough chop that seems to have been cooked with nary a sprinkling of salt.

Dessert is also a mixed bag at Hanny’s. The house-made key lime pie is excellent, the silky custard offering just the right balance of sweetness and tartness. But the house-made doughnuts are strangely unsatisfying, considering that it’s kind of hard to mess up deep-fried enriched dough. Here, though, the doughnuts are misshaped, doughy balls, vaguely yeasty in flavor, but lacking both the light, stretchy airiness of yeast doughnuts and the rich crumbly density of cake doughnuts. It’s a disappointing finish to a night at a unique and storied destination in downtown Phoenix.

But at least we have martinis.

40 North First Street
(602) 252-2285

Hours: 11 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. Monday through Friday; 5 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. Saturday and Sunday

Prosciutto e mela pizza $13.00
Cauliflower calabrese $7.50
Tuscan steak $25.00
Key lime pie $7.00

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Patricia Escárcega was Phoenix New Times' food critic.