The thing to know about Tom's Tavern & 1929 Grill is that after being on the brink of closing in 2010, it was rescued not by one of its primary clientele of local politicians and government movers and shakers, but by a far less likely source.
Football. Arizona Cardinals football.
Originally the city morgue on Adams Street until namesake Tom Higley opened the business in 1929, the landmark tavern had been around for more than 80 years in various manifestations before being purchased in early 2011 by the Bidwill family, owners of the Cardinals. Michael Bidwill, a regular at Tom's, bought the piece of Arizona history from previous owner and acquaintance Michael Ratner, who, after running the restaurant for many years, couldn't maintain operations due to a battle with cancer. Ratner died in November 2010.
After closing down for a few months last year, Tom's Tavern reopened in October with an updated interior and new breakfast, lunch, and dinner menus showcasing classic and sophisticated tavern-style dishes, a few with a Southwestern twist. And though the Bidwills may have saved the popular downtown tradition, flush with memories from years past, the owners of the Cards will need to put in some extra practice to bring the food at Tom's from standard to Super Bowl and noteworthy enough to bring customers back for more — especially given downtown's up-and-coming pool of competitors.
Which isn't to say there aren't some good ideas in place at the rejuvenated Tom's.
The interior's much-needed upgrade has transformed the space from a well-worn casual eatery to a sophisticated downtown dining spot without losing its former charm. Black-and-white photographs of the restaurant's history cover walls swathed in beige, green, and dark red, the latter colors used as accents on an exquisitely tiled diamond-patterned floor. Rich dark wood and leather are found at the bar and dining room, which includes several large booths lining the wall. And the Governor's Room, a place where politicos would (and still do) go to snag some privacy, exists off to the side of the restaurant, complete with a TV, a view of the patio, and a large photograph of Governor Jan Brewer smiling over the day's dishes.
On the food side, chef Jason Choate of Rojo Hospitality Group, the division of Bidwill's company that handles the food service at University of Phoenix Stadium, installed an in-house meat smoker and has put a focus on meals prepared fresh daily (even the mild, slightly sweet pickles are made in-house), using locally sourced produce and meats whenever possible. Tom's also has refreshed its cocktail menu, which includes the boozy Tavern Tea, a take on the classic Long Island Iced Tea made with Wild Turkey American honey bourbon.
Given its customer base of downtown execs and politicos, lunch at Tom's is the busiest time of the day. (Even Sheriff Joe Arpaio has made it a regular afternoon stop, and it is said he comes in nearly every day.) The dishes best suited for lunch happen to be the restaurant's most successful.
There is an outstanding sandwich called the Cuban, chunky and loaded with layers of so-good roasted pork and house-smoked ham, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard between a hot-pressed soft roll. And like the Cuban, the French dip hoagie makes the grade for its meat — luscious carved prime rib with caramelized onions and roasted tomato on a soft roll — with an accompanying rich au jus. They are best enjoyed with a cup of smoky, Southwestern-inspired Tom's Famous 1929 Chili or, for fans of mac 'n' cheese, Chef Choate's version made with chipotle chiles and bits of crunchy bacon.
There are some dishes, however, that don't make the cut. Like its sandwich siblings, the smoked turkey and pepperoni club with a pesto wine mayo arrives high and proud, but it elicits little in the way of standout flavors, save for the subtlest hint of smoky turkey. The ground beef brisket burger, stuffed with mushrooms, green onions, smoked bacon, and sharp cheddar sounds delicious but doesn't deliver on its ingredients — and the patty was unevenly cooked. And the Quinoa Garbanzo Spinach, a salad said to be one of Tom's most popular, was the biggest disappointment, failing to offer a lively balance of flavors or a bright dressing to enhance the dish's more understated ingredients.
Eight Buffalo-style Diablo chicken wings are a straightforward and satisfying starter, sufficiently meaty and accompanied by a tangy sauce. There is a mildly spicy jalapeño artichoke dip that is good, as well, although its thin texture turned my chip-dipping into more of a chip-dripping. And if you've just come off a fast or happen to have brought along the entire Phoenix City Council, then Tom's chili nachos should do nicely. The piled-high platter is certainly tasty, but its mountain of tortilla chips, pepper jack and cheddar cheese, Tom's 1929 Chili, tomatoes, onions, black olives, jalapeños, roasted tomato salasa, sour cream, and guacamole eats like a meal and should come with a server's warning before ordering.
Like the nachos, hefty dishes continue into Tom's dinner service, which, given the bright lights in the restaurant, seems unfortunately more like last call than an intimate meal.
Meat dishes smoked in-house, like the pulled pork and the baby back ribs, are well prepared; however, the lackluster sauces only hint at the sweet or spicy flavors touted on the menu. Not so with the Tavern Meatloaf, but the signature creation goes too far in the opposite direction. Arriving in a handled bowl, its seasoned ground beef and pork stuffed with a hard-boiled egg is covered with a cloying sauce that negates any other taste possibilities. Unfortunately, sides of salty seasonal vegetables and dry Parker House rolls do little to aid the entrees.
Oddly enough, the best dish listed under Tom's Traditions is one that does not utilize the in-house smoker: the fish and chips. With meaty chunks of cod fried in a light batter until golden brown, these chunky swimmers have a lovely, light crunchy taste, as do the crisp shoestring fries.
And although the apple pie may be recommended by one of Tom's helpful and delightfully friendly servers as the dessert to order, the ingredient said to make it unique, cayenne pepper, is heavy-handed, and the dish should be skipped.
I'd also recommend passing on breakfast at Tom's. As one of only a couple of diners arriving for a.m. eats one morning — plates of thin, salty bacon strips, dry buckwheat pancakes, and a Southwest eggs Benedict with tomato-heavy sauce that didn't work at all — I was not surprised when told Tom's was considering taking the first meal of the day away completely.
That might not be a bad idea for the downtown landmark. Since its rebirth last year, the Bidwills' incarnation of Tom's Tavern has proved comebacks can happen. But like any good football story, it needs to focus on its heart — in this case, the food — to keep fans old and new coming back for more.