Jeff Ward could be living the simple life right now.
"I was going to retire and go to Portugal," Ward says. "My kids are 20 and 18. Live a little different life."
Instead, he's got a to-do list. These days, Ward is performing top-to-bottom renovations at The Clarendon Hotel and Spa, the home of his next restaurant project. As of August 1, Ward will be heading up all The Clarendon's dining operations, which will be centered around his restaurant, Fuego Bistro.
Ward has a storied background in the Valley's restaurant scene. Years ago, he was working as a server at Mastro's Steakhouse in Scottsdale with his wife, business partner, and high school sweetheart, Amanda. They decided to open their own concept inspired by a Cubano sandwich at a Puerto Rican restaurant. That became Fuego Bistro, which opened in Uptown in 2006.
The eatery, near Seventh Street and Bethany Home Road, didn't attract many visitors in its first few years, but Fuego turned a corner in 2009 when it appeared on PBS' Check, Please! Business boomed, and Ward opened several other Fuego locations around the Valley.
All have since closed, including the Uptown spot, which Ward shuttered just a few months ago, right before the pandemic hit.
Fuego fans will be glad to know the entire 15-member crew at the former Fuego will be moving to the Clarendon, including the four cooks.
"Those four guys have got amazing synergy back there in the kitchen," says Ward.
At the Clarendon, the main restaurant and patio will be on the first floor of the hotel, where previous tenants Tranquilo and Gallo Blanco set up shop. There'll also be a pool bar, a food truck, and a bar on The Clarendon's signature fifth-floor Skydeck.
The Fuego menu will carry over, as will the live music program, which consists of a few dozen musical acts that played at Fuego over the years. Inside the main restaurant, they'll have a piano — one Ward himself might sit down at from time to time — as well as sofas in the happy-hour hangout area and a bar serving sangria, margaritas, and mojitos. The outdoor patio will have space for live music along with misters, a vertical garden, painted chairs and tables, and heating lamps for colder months.
Aqua, the aptly named poolside bar and lounge, will serve umbrella-style drinks. At the upstairs room-service kitchen, Board, the food will be served on — you guessed it — boards. The hotel is also building an accompanying rooftop bar where Ward plans to serve classic cocktails come September.
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"I really think Fuego is the perfect fit for this hotel," Ward says. "Our place had this beautiful patio, but it was gritty, and this is a gritty place too, and it's seeded with tons of history."
Ward says he can't be stopped now. He says he still has big plans for the restaurant and himself.
"I'm in the toboggan right now, and I'm already going on 74," Ward says. "It's full speed ahead."