Phoenix restaurant pros open The Sidewinder at historic downtown diner | Phoenix New Times

Old diner, new tricks: Garfield dive gets TLC from two local restaurant pros

How a Route 66 greasy spoon became a Garfield neighborhood fixture — plus what’s next for this vintage diner.
The Sidewinder has taken over the Valentine Diner and is set to open in the Garfield neighborhood.
The Sidewinder has taken over the Valentine Diner and is set to open in the Garfield neighborhood. Chais Gentner

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Long before it was Garfield Diner, Welcome Diner, Roosevelt Diner, or even Lil Robert’s Diner, the retro-style eatery on the corner of Roosevelt and 10th streets was known by a different moniker — Hi-Way Diner. In its heyday, Hi-Way Diner dished out burgers, fries and shakes to sightseeing road trippers from its outpost along Route 66 in Williams.

The brainchild of Arthur Valentine and built by Valentine Manufacturing in Wichita, Kansas, it was one of a model of prefabricated, compact nine-stool diners available for purchase by mail order. Estimates say just 3,500 diners were built.

Hi-Way Diner was among six Valentine Diners that opened in Arizona during the late 1940s. In the 1970s, Valentine Manufacturing halted production of the Valentine Diner. America’s new interstate system eclipsed The Mother Road, fast-food restaurants were taking hold, and as a result, most of these once-buzzy diners went out of business. Including Hi-Way Diner.

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Valentine diners were prefabricated and could be purchased by mail order.
Don Graham
Former attorney Robert Young, who is 86, brought the diner to Phoenix.

“I am retired from the act of practicing law,” he says. “And thank God for that.”

In the 1970s, Young was not yet retired and working in Payson.

“I was at a juncture,” he recalls. “I came back to Phoenix and was going through the Business Opportunities section of the Arizona Republic and that’s when it caught my eye: Diner for Sale, Williams, Arizona. I went up there immediately."

Young found the diner "on the north side of the road at a Texaco gas station," and purchased it for about $3,500, he says. It was relocated to the Valley on a flatbed truck where it spent two years in storage on Lincoln Street in Phoenix’s Warehouse District until Young was able to secure a commercial site — the same plot where the diner currently resides.

“I set it back substantially from the roadway to allow for a patio on the front; back in ‘79 that was huge. Arizona is perfect for an outside patio,” he says. “We got the environment for it, let’s use it.”

Next, Young needed approval and a permit from the city to get the diner up and running.

“The city approved it for electricity and the electricity has been on ever since ‘82,” Young says.

Today, Young keeps tabs on similar diners.

“There’s a couple others in the state; only a handful actually operate,” he says.

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At 924 E. Roosevelt Street, Welcome Diner was a popular late-night gathering spot.
Jacob Tyler Dunn

Diners, dives and departures

For residents and visitors, the diner is a community builder.

“When the diner has an occupant with delicious food, drinks and stable hours, it's a recipe to become a walkable community hotspot,” says Raleigh Dombek, vice president of the Garfield Organization, a neighborhood alliance operating in the historic area. Since it landed on its downtown corner, the diner has been home to numerous businesses.

“The two most memorable in my opinion would be Welcome Diner. The other notable tenant was The Little Chef Diner,” Dombek recalls.

Sloan McFarland, a fourth-generation Arizona native, real estate developer and artist, opened Welcome Diner in 2004. Later, Michael Babcock joined the fold, bringing vegan jackfruit po’boys, fries and other Southern-style comforts to the Garfield neighborhood hangout. Babcock has since stepped away from his role at Welcome and Instrumental Hospitality, a restaurant group he co-founded.

In 2018, Welcome Diner closed its operations on Roosevelt Street and debuted its new, bigger digs on Pierce Street, where it remains open today. Young says he's seen five tenants come and go since Welcome’s departure.

In June 2021, Shannon Moss and Oswald Fuentes took over the space and gave the diner a much-needed makeover, which included an extensive interior renovation and the diner’s current minty green paint job. In November of the same year, they opened The Garfield Diner with a simple menu that featured Mexican food like carne asada tacos, burritos, salsas and fresh guacamole alongside coffee drinks and ice cream. It shuttered in the summer of 2022.

Next, Mike and Daphnie Beltran’s Little Chef Diner opened at the pint-size spot, debuting a menu stacked with purple ube pancakes, coffee and pastries. The concept closed in August 2023.

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Esther Noh and TJ Culp on the steps at Sottise, the duo's French restaurant, located just north of Roosevelt Row.
Natalia Ankiewicz

Valentine Diner struck by savvy restaurateurs’ arrow

Next in the diner's long history of tenants are restaurateurs TJ Culp and Esther Noh, a duo attempting to go three-for-three with their new concept The Sidewinder. It will join the duo’s roster of restaurants, which includes the downtown French bistro Sottise and the Melrose District's Progress.

“A year or two after opening Sottise the company started flirting with the idea of a dive, whether it was a late night or lunch spot, we were looking,” Culp says. “We both have been infatuated with the diner since we started going to Welcome back in the day."

Culp says he saw the diner for the first time when he was in elementary or middle school. When he recently mentioned the space to his father, luckily his dad knew the owner.

“A week later we had keys. It was a great space in a great area and neighborhood,” he says.

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Inside, wallpapered magazine pages and vintage beer signs give the spot a retro dive vibe.
Chais Gentner
For Culp and Noh, old spaces make great new spots. And they are no strangers to historic preservation. Sottise is located in a historic home built in 1909 and Progress is inside the historic Wagon Wheel building.

“It’s intentional for us, we just love the character of old buildings, it's something millions of dollars can't build,” Culp says.

Culp resides in Woodlea, a cottage community inside of the Melrose District where Progress is located “and I love the feeling of being a neighborhood spot,” he says.

That feeling is something both Culp and Noh hope to replicate in the Garfield neighborhood at The Sidewinder. The new concept will take a large step away from the fine dining restaurants the pair currently run. It will feature a Southwestern-influenced menu with dishes that draw on dive classics and diner staples like Tamale Frito Pie, smoked elote, Texas-style brisket tacos, smoked bologna sandwiches, various versions of hot dogs and French fries with chipotle ketchup.

“We will be open from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m., so dinner and late night is our crowd,” Culp notes.

The Sidewinder’s opening date has yet to be announced, but when it welcomes customers inside, the historic Valentine Diner will once again realize its purpose of serving the community.

The Sidewinder

Opening soon
924 E. Roosevelt St.
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