When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out -- and let you know our initial impressions, share a few photos, and dish about some menu items. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead a peek inside restaurants that have just opened, sampling a few items, and satisfying curiosities (yours and ours).
Restaurant: The Normal Location: 225 E. Apache Blvd, Tempe Open: Less than a week Eats: Diner fare Price: $15+/person
Blink and you might have missed the new business that opened at 225 E. Apache Boulevard and in case you've been wondering, it's a new boutique hotel called the Graduate Tempe. Located off Apache Boulevard just east of Mill Avenue, the college-inspired hotel replaces the longstanding Twin Palms Hotel, which closed its doors earlier this year. If you live in the Tempe neighborhood (or have ever been drunk and hungry in that part of town) then you probably also remember that the spot used to house a 24-hours IHOP. Sadly for drunk and hungry students, it's gone for good. But there is hope for those seeking late-night diner fare.
Enter, The Normal Diner.
Located inside the Graduate Tempe but accessible from a separate entrance, The Normal offers elevated and updated diner fare in a retro-chic atmosphere. The decor falls somewhere between a 70s diner and a hipster paradise with authentic-feeling vintage dishware and a wall covered in 8-track tapes. The dining room also includes a long counter with stools that might be more appealing as a seating option if it provided a view of something besides a wall.
You're able to get breakfast all day (and until 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays) and from 11 a.m. to close there's also a selection of sandwiches and salads to be explored. Sweets make up a surprisingly significant chunk of the menu; there are five desserts compared to eight lunch selections.
The Normal's entrees may have their roots in classic diner fare but the restaurant takes things into the modern age by using local purveyors -- such as Hayden Flour Mills, Mediterra Bake House, and Tender Belly -- and trendy ingredients -- such as acai berries, barbecue brisket, and Sriracha.
The Chicken N Waffles, for example, offers pieces of crispy free-range chicken and triangles of red velvet waffles propped up on their sides and arranged horizontally on the plate. The strips of boneless chicken aren't particularly remarkable (think, chicken tenders) and the red velvet waffles look more impressive than they taste.
According to one employee they're colored with beet juice as opposed to food coloring and are made with cocoa powder in the mix. We still thought the color was more of a gimmick than anything else.
A better choice would probably be the Gringo Burrito, a hearty meal that arrives sliced in half with a side of spicy green salsa. The most robust flavor comes from the housemade chorizo, which we thought offered just the right amount of heat. Stuffed with roasted potatoes, eggs, and guajillo chile sauce, this makes a filling meal for a growing college student.
The Afterschool Special is a simple, classic, and likable meal consisting of a grown-up grilled cheese stuffed with brisket, havarti, and cheddar and a cup of tomato soup. You'll want to dip the sandwich -- or maybe just the excess toasted white bread -- in the creamy, rich, almost bisque-like soup.
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On the drinks side, you can choose from a list of cocktails (a definitely upgrade from IHOP's entirely non-alcoholic offerings), canned beers, or regular beverages. And don't worry, the coffee at The Normal doesn't disappoint. The restaurant is using La Colombe coffee that arrives at your table in a heavy white mug. Ours was constantly refilled throughout the meal in true diner fashion.
For coffee-drinkers on the go, The Normal also offers The Normal Coffee a counter with juices, coffee, and grab-and-go snacks. There's even a walk-up window in case you're in such a hurry that you don't want to go inside.
In the end, The Normal may not be the next big dining destination. But it may be just what the campus-adjacent neighborhood needs -- a place that appeals to those who'd never be caught dead at IHOP, that still serves basic, and sometimes better than basic, eats to late-night diners.