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Phoenix's New Thunderbird Lounge Keeps All Its Promises to the Melrose District

Yes, they serve Montucky, the cold snack.
Yes, they serve Montucky, the cold snack. Lauren Cusimano
This conversation has happened countless times — “Dude, we should open a bar.” Well, these three dudes went and did it.

Thunderbird Lounge
is nooked up in the last slot of the Melrose District's historic Wagon Wheel Building. And since hosting its grand opening on April 20, the new bar is shooting for descriptors like "neighborhood" and "nostalgic" from its patrons.

And so far, it looks like that’s the case.

Show up on a typical drinking night, and you might struggle to get to the bar. But show up after work, and you’ll immediately notice the many details the three-man team has implemented into the narrow space.

The place looks like a 1978 bachelor pad, or maybe an extremely tidy estate sale. Amenities range from Wi-Fi and power outlets to a jukebox, a VHS playing on the TVs (Dune, Heavy Metal, Logan’s Run), and a working cigarette machine.

click to enlarge The old bar sign outside the Wagon Wheel Building. - LAUREN CUSIMANO
The old bar sign outside the Wagon Wheel Building.
Lauren Cusimano
The three dudes include Jeremiah Gratza, director of operations for Stateside Presents (and manager of the President Gator record label). He was one of the original owners of Cobra Arcade Bar, but sold his half about three years ago. He’d been looking for another bar location since then, and knew just the guys to rope in.

The core team also consists of former Crescent Ballroom bar manager Brett Boyles, and musician Jake Wiedmann of Hot Guy Band (who’d also been the tour manager for his cousin, Jordin Sparks).

It’s another example of Phoenix music scene members turning bar runners. But a few — well, many — details of Thunderbird Lounge set this spot apart.

First, the location.

Thunderbird neighbors Melrose Pharmacy and Restaurant Progress are in the same historic strip. Gratza points out there’s still “bar” painted on the back of the building's sign from when it used to be the Wagon Wheel bar.

“We knew that we wanted to do it in the Melrose District,” Gratza says, “because we all live in this neighborhood. ... We tried to put a lot of ourselves into this.”

click to enlarge Specific decorating can certainly put the lounge in Thunderbird Lounge. - LAUREN CUSIMANO
Specific decorating can certainly put the lounge in Thunderbird Lounge.
Lauren Cusimano
Second, the "lounge" part is definitely apparent here. Vintage furniture and bric-a-brac are everywhere. And most everything has a story behind it.

“That lamp right there was my first girlfriend’s grandmother’s lamp. All of these other lamps we purchased here in the Melrose District at Modern on Melrose,” says Gratza, who could go on about pieces in the bar he saved from former girlfriends and old roommates. Even the coat rack is from producer Bob Hoag of Flying Blanket Recording.

And the linoleum really ties the lounge together. “It’s a replica of the original floor,” Gratza says.

But the most iconic feature of the bar is just that, the bar. Ordering a drink, you face a colorful backdrop behind the register. The yellow, red, and brown display looks like a glowing miniature racetrack. Built by Public House Creative, the piece is made of wood liberated from an abandoned bowling alley in Globe.

And the office sign, paneling, and wood floor under the arcade games, cig machine, and jukebox? Also from the same bowling alley.

click to enlarge The iconic bar at Thunderbird Lounge is made of wood from an abandoned bowling alley in Globe. - LAUREN CUSIMANO
The iconic bar at Thunderbird Lounge is made of wood from an abandoned bowling alley in Globe.
Lauren Cusimano
Even the jukebox has a yarn.

The guys spent four hours at Zia Records handpicking CDs for one of the few remaining jukeboxes in town. There are ABBA and Judas Priest, Elvis Costello and Kraftwerk, Waylon Jennings and Todd Rundgren. And then there's Marty Robbins.

Robbins is the classic country-western singer-songwriter famously born in Glendale. His notable album, Gunfighter Ballads And Trail Songs, is the only record that must remain in the Thunderbird jukebox.

“In Old Towne Glendale … there used to be a bar called Thunderbird Lounge,” Gratza says. "And that was Marty Robbins’ watering hole.”

click to enlarge The jukebox with the never-leaving Marty Robbins album. - LAUREN CUSIMANO
The jukebox with the never-leaving Marty Robbins album.
Lauren Cusimano
That bar, where Gratza and his friends were once patrons, has since closed. “Maybe we can at least save the name,” Gratza says. Plus, he explains, so much of the name Thunderbird is rooted in our past in Phoenix and Arizona.

But there are more amenities.

Several vintage arcade machines are lined up and set to free play. The ATM dispenses singles and fives for the jukebox, and cigarette machine. There are three half-circle booths backed by rocky, Arizona stone walls — another callback to the neighborhood taverns of yore.

And as you might have seen on the bar's Instagram, there’s a fantastic patio.

Chairs and tables with dinky plastic ashtrays deck the backyard-style space. A walk-up window allows for another round without stepping inside. A huge saguaro acts as the Thunderbird flagpole, which is wrapped in colorful Christmas lights (“I had an audience for that one,” Boyles says of decorating the thing himself).

There’s corn hole, DJs, big Jenga, sometimes a kiddie pool, and on some nights, Dino’s Napoletana makes wood-fired pizzas. (Dino’s weekly schedule is always posted on its Instagram.)

While pizza is the only substantial meal you’ll find at Thunderbird, there are definitely snacks. And as with everything, the bar's food is carefully chosen by the owners.

Boyles is originally from Ohio, and Gratza from Chicago — though he and Wiedmann grew up in the west Valley.

“We wanted to bring some Midwestern flair,” Gratza says. The owners decided early on to carry Old Style beer and RC Cola. There are also Jay’s Potato Chips and O-Ke-Doke popcorn, which is flown in from Chicago weekly, Gratza says. “We make zero profit on that.”

click to enlarge The winning threesome. - LAUREN CUSIMANO
The winning threesome.
Lauren Cusimano
What’s more, the bar carries Montucky, or as Gratza puts it, Montana’s PBR, another special request from Boyles. It’s spotted by the white unicorn backdropped by a soaring rainbow. There’re also Thunderbird pride koozies.

“We wanted to also embrace the fact we’re in the Melrose District,” Gratza says. He goes on to explain how Musical Mondays, when the bar plays show tunes all night for singalongs, is rolling out, too. That’s in addition to ‘70s punk night on Wednesday and a few other themed evenings.

And the Thunderbird Lounge is just getting started.

The bar is closing in on its three-week anniversary, meaning there’s still more to do, like maybe happy hour specials. Hell, there’s not even a real sign yet. Misters still need to be installed. And they’re not even done decorating.

But it's not like they need to be in a real hurry. The bar is, seemingly, already a success.

“We’ve just been pleasantly surprised and eternally grateful for the neighborhood completely showing out,” Gratza says, explaining how the bar has been much busier than they expected.

“All we wanted to do was open a neighborhood bar where we lived,” he concludes. "And the neighborhood has really embraced us.”
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Lauren Cusimano is Phoenix New Times' food and drink editor. She is a journalist and food waste writer based in Tempe. Joys include eating wings, riding bikes, knowing everyone at the bar, talking too much about The Simpsons, and falling asleep while reading.
Contact: Lauren Cusimano