Cafe Reviews

Lunch Be a Lady: Exploring the Arcadia Lunch Scene

If you're lucky enough to lounge during lunch like a modern-day Oscar Wilde character, you have plenty of options. Arcadia has expanded its lunch game in the past year with more and more places that cater to the upper-crust, midday meal crowd. Chestnut, Flower Child, and The Market by Jennifer's are three recent additions to the scene.

Each caters to the persnickety demands of the clientele it seeks to win over with gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, paleo, and other dietary options clearly labeled so that no one has to wonder -- though customers tend to loudly ask anyway. The restaurants also gravitate toward a vintage and quaint yet chic aesthetic that says, "I take myself and my lunch seriously."

If you're willing to drop a 20-spot or more on lunch, you're welcome to navigate the highs and lows of this rapidly increasing East Phoenix neighborhood's offerings. While Flower Child and Chestnut suffer from identity issues, The Market by Jennifer's goes for a more comforting culinary approach, resulting in less healthy but more interesting fare.

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First, on the northeast corner of 44th Street and Camelback Road, you'll find Sam Fox's newest venture, Flower Child. The health-focused concept is bright and white, an ivy-laced, country-chic spot that looks, smells, and feels healthy the moment you walk through the door. It's only fair to warn you that the menu here is huge and a little confusing, which becomes evident as customers pool around the entryway staring at copies of the menu and trying to figure out what's going on before they approach the counter to order.

With half-baked fusion options like a nearly flavorless tofu and mushroom pho, it's clear that Flower Child is confused, too. However, if you stay away from the parts of the menu that cater to the foodie crowd, there are some legitimately flavorful low-cal options. Plus, the staff is proactive and friendly, obviously aware that trying to make a decision after studying the menu -- which is like a flow chart that doesn't flow -- is no easy task.

If you're going for salad, the buckwheat noodle and quinoa salads use gluten-free grains in conjunction with healthy doses of veggies to fill you up. For wraps, you really can't go wrong with whatever you choose because each is wrapped in a soft but substantial chia and flaxseed whole wheat tortilla. I liked the Flying Avocado, with smoked Gouda and grilled chicken.

Even if you're health-conscious, you'll want to try the lemon olive oil cake -- so good that it alone is worth the trip. The sweet, tart, and moist cake will have you sold on the place before anything else. And, yes, Flower Child has kombucha on draft, a trend that's already taken hold in cities like Austin but is just now making its way to Phoenix . Does kombucha need to be on draft to be good? No. Is it gimmicky? Sure. Do I like it? Yes.

Across 44th Street at Chestnut, the price point is about the same, though you'll quickly find that this beautiful restaurant is like a cheap designer knockoff: On the surface, it looks right, but look a little deeper and you'll find the imperfections.

The exposed kitchen, marble bar, crystal and metal cake plates, large apothecary jars, and turn-of-the-century aesthetic make you want to like it. The Cartel Coffee, MJ Bread, and McClendon's Select produce make you want to like it. After sitting at the counter for 20 minutes only to be told that I had to order at the register, I was a little peeved -- especially since the restaurant was nearly empty.

Service aside, the food -- once it finally arrived -- was lackluster. The five-spice tofu bahn mi with pickled and fresh vegetables sounds like a recipe for tons of flavor, but the thick, spongy bread and seemingly uncooked tofu made up most of the dish, resulting in a blandly unpleasant flavor. It's both insulting to what the Vietnamese sandwich should be and to vegetarians, who aren't desperate for options, especially with the vegetarian-friendlier Flower Child opened right across the street.

On the greens side, the Chestnut Chopped should be a showing of the restaurant's capabilities in salad form, since it bears the joint's name. The plate came to me with wilted, brown "greens," dry chicken, heirloom tomatoes that looked past their prime, French feta, and some other veggies, all drenched in balsamic vinaigrette. It was a sad display for salad, but downright depressing when you factor in the $13 price.

The highlights of the meal came from the Billy Club sandwich, which was good only because it had bacon on it, and the blueberry lavender cupcake. If you like a lighter whipped cream frosting on dense cake, this treat does the trick, but, like most of the Chestnut offerings, it didn't impress on the flavor front, giving only hints of floral lavender and almost no tart, sweet blueberry at all.

But the lunch must go on. So I headed to Indian School and 36th Street to The Market by Jennifer's. The catering business turned dine-in establishment was opened by Jennifer Russo-Fitzgerald about six months ago and already has completely revamped its philosophy from a lot of catering-centric grab-and-go options to a larger focus on dining in.

With different brunch, lunch, and dinner menus, along with a small deli counter and pastry case, this spot still has a lot going on. Unfortunately, on many of the dishes, it seems the translation from catering to casual dining hasn't quite made the leap. That's especially evident when you look at the mediocre presentation, which would be more understandable if served in a banquet hall next to a hundred identical dishes. But you're not paying for bulk culinary art at the Market.

The Market itself is a quaint, bright space with a sizable covered and misted patio area, though finding the location can be tricky, as it sits on the back corner of the west end of the Gaslight Square plaza. Compared with Chestnut and Flower Child, it's the only one that offers a true dine-in, sit-down-and-order experience. Plus, its menu doesn't suffer from the hipster pandering and general confusion that the other spots do.

The kitchen serves homey French- and Italian-inspired fare, including delicate mini-raviolis in broth and buttery Jerusalem artichoke risotto with shrimp. The standout here is the grilled yellowfin tuna niçoise, which is an infinitely better way of spending $13 if you're going to buy a salad. The generously portioned, perfectly grilled fish rests on a bed of greens and vegetables, essentially making it a fish entrée with a side salad, but I'm not complaining. I did find fault with the roasted asparagus soup, which had a funky, unfresh aftertaste that made me -- a soup lover -- set my spoon down after a couple of sips.

Table service at The Market is slow, but the staff makes up for it with a friendly, accommodating manner. It just seems this place still has some paring down and focusing to do before it can really shine as bright as its potential.

In the Arcadia lunch scene, The Market by Jennifer's is a nice option for an upscale comfort food take, while Flower Child goes the other way with healthy eating being the main focus. As far as Chestnut is concerned, I wouldn't go back. If my money is going anywhere, it's likely to the Market, which stands the best chance of improving over time.

Flower Child 5013 North 44th Street 602-429-6222 Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily

Chestnut 4350 East Camelback Road 602-708-7679 Hours: 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily

The Market by Jennifer's 3603 East Indian School Road 602-626-5050 Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday; 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday

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Heather Hoch is a music, food, and arts writer based in Tucson. She enjoys soup, scotch, Electric Light Orchestra, and walking her dog, Frodo.
Contact: Heather Hoch