Downtown Phoenix has not historically been kind to hungry night owls. I know this because I’m a lifelong insomniac and a chronic sufferer of midnight cravings, a person who Googles phrases like “late-night burritos in downtown Phoenix” with alarming frequency.
True, there are plenty of 24-hour drive-thrus and ’Bertos joints, and there’s always been a small and reliable contingent of late-night food and drink options around central Phoenix. We could use a few more good options, though — places where late-night dining doesn’t involve shouting into a staticky intercom, or digging hot food out of a Styrofoam container with a flimsy plastic fork. Some nights, you want to eat in a friendly, well-lit room that’s populated by other hungry and slightly bleary-eyed souls. Some nights, you want the restorative powers of a hot meal served in a beautiful setting, even if it happens to be 2 in the morning.
The Grand, which debuted as The Grand Central Coffee Company last year, is this kind of place. The cafe, restaurant, bar, and hangout space is helping to fill the void in downtown Phoenix’s late-night food and drink scene, thanks to a 24-hour kitchen that promises to stay open 365 days a year, and which offers a small but memorable menu of hot snacks and small plates at all hours. During the day, the menu expands to include breakfast and lunch staples.
Located in the shadow of the Westward Ho, within easy walking distance of the swelling ASU Downtown campus, The Grand is the vision of Steven Rogers, the longtime nightlife impresario who previously operated the Amsterdam nightclub in the space. If you still miss Amsterdam (which closed in 2013), stepping inside The Grand will probably evoke fond memories of martini-soaked happy hours and late-night dance parties.
The sprawling 15,000-square-foot space, though, has been re-envisioned. It’s now a glowing temple of steampunk-inspired design, with visual tributes to New York’s Grand Central Station. The space feels theatrical, in the best sense possible, thanks to lighting and decorative flourishes that double as Victorian-era set pieces. Vintage light fixtures dangle from the high, industrial ceilings. Old-fashioned train station timetables grace the exposed red brick above the bar, which itself features a serpentine, copper-topped counter. The space is full of intriguing nooks and crannies, including a speakeasy, Sanctum, which is tucked into the venue’s small second floor. There’s also a comfortable beer garden with ample seating, and a smaller sidewalk patio that faces Central Avenue.
There are too many intriguing design details to absorb in a single visit, which is part of The Grand’s appeal. It’s worth exploring the venue’s adjacent marketplace, though, where you can pick up wine, spirits, cocktail mixers, and even bags of ice. There’s also a gelato counter, which seems to be operational mostly during daylight hours.
If there’s anything slightly inconvenient about The Grand, it’s that its location still seems to lead to some confusion among downtown drivers trying to circumnavigate the light rail. On a recent visit, I witnessed a car driving the wrong way down the Central Avenue access lane that runs in front of The Grand. For the record, if traveling by car, the parking lot is accessible by driving north on Central and accessing the lane that splits left of the light rail tracks.
But many of the The Grand’s core clientele, though — students from the nearby ASU Downtown campus — are well within walking distance, and the venue’s beer garden frequently accommodates student slam poetry nights and live music.
But The Grand’s refined gastropub fare has wide appeal, and it should be a draw for anyone looking for a light lunch or dinner around downtown Phoenix. Chef Jacquelynn Allen, a rising culinary talent who heads The Grand’s kitchen, has a talent for dressing up simple dishes with bold and sophisticated ingredients and flavors.
Take the breakfast sandwich, for instance, which features cheesy, chive-inflected scrambled eggs tucked into an airy Noble buttermilk bun. A roasted-garlic aioli imbues it with a sweet and unexpected richness.
Small plates, meanwhile, include a very good poutine, which is served with thick-cut, well-seasoned fries, deliciously smothered in Cheddar and a beefy, red wine gravy. Short ribs is a specialty of the kitchen, and the long-braised meat, earthy and rich, really shines in this dish.
Roasted Brussels sprouts, sprinkled with chewy bits of pork belly lardons, might not knock your socks off at first. But pickled red onions are a compelling addition, helping tease more flavor from the pork-scented veggies.
Macaroni and cheese, available on the late-night menu, is a nice upgrade on what might have turned out to be Velveeta-drenched elbow macaroni. Instead, the dish features a buttery, sticky mass of noodles, spruced up with white Cheddar and bread crumbs.
There’s also the Mac of the Moment, a chef-driven rotating special that’s very much worth the upcharge. In past months, the mac and cheese special has featured creative ingredients like Hot Cheetos and shredded Brussels sprouts. More recently, the Mac of the Moment involved a bowl of creamy penne pasta, tossed with succulent, beefy tendrils of braised short ribs, the meat dampened and slightly sweetened by the juice of roasted red peppers.
Highlights on the sandwich menu include surprise hits like a Buffalo cauliflower sandwich. The thick-cut cauliflower “steak,” battered in tempura and sluiced in a wonderfully spicy and tangy Buffalo sauce, is hard not to love. The variation in textures — the cauliflower is neatly crisp at the edges, and chewy around the middle — makes the sandwich doubly satisfying.
The pan-seared fish naan’boy sandwich, a mouthful in more than one way, is also very good. Tilapia, seared to a beautiful crisp in brown butter, is tucked into an oversize naan flatbread and dressed in a pleasantly spicy Cajun-inspired aioli.
There’s an excellent chicken sandwich called the Modern Times Battered Yardbird. The chicken breast, beer-battered and fried to a lovely crisp, is exceptionally juicy. It’s dressed in a piquant and flavorful mustard slaw, accented with shaved Fresno peppers, which highlights the kitchen’s smart use of boldly flavored ingredients.
Then there’s the Elvis-inspired Hound Dog Press, a sandwich that sounds questionable on paper but which turns out to be one of the most successful iterations of the classic peanut butter-bacon grilled sandwich that I’ve stumbled across in metro Phoenix. The slivers of bacon, banana, and peanut butter, touched with honey, are fused together so deftly, the Hound Dog emerges as one gorgeously crisp, tightly sealed unit. It crackles with sweet and salty flavor.
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It should be noted that The Grand is strictly counter-service, a casual yet friendly setup that doesn’t feel designed for anything resembling quick takeout. You may as well take a seat at the bar, where you’ll note the dazzling display of glass drinkware and the cocktail menu, which includes La Vie Boheme-inspired cocktails like Death in the Afternoon, a sparkling white wine punctuated with absinthe. There’s also a formidable craft beer list to explore, along with specialties like kombucha on tap, and of course, there’s a full coffee bar.
Whatever you drink, you might find yourself getting lost in the comfort of the space and the food, hanging out at The Grand a little longer than you intended. Even when it’s already 2 a.m.
718 North Central Avenue
Open daily 24 hours
Mac of the Moment $9
Buffalo cauliflower sandwich $9
Pan-seared fish naan’boy $9.50
The Hound Dog Press $8.50