Exploring Downtown Tucson's Fresh Take
From Fine Restaurants to Quirky Bars to Off-Beat Shops
By Bryn Bailer
Back in the late 1800s, Congress Street was but a dusty road leading into a hardscrabble pioneer town in the Arizona territory. Lined with rooming houses, busy hardware stores, and, of course, saloons—it wasn’t polished, but it got the job done.
Fast-forward to 2015: Downtown has reinvented itself as the spot where culture and counterculture meet. But, some blasts from the past remain—the best parts. In fact, Congress Street is the midway point of an entertainment corridor that stretches from the University of Arizona’s Main Gate Square, past Fourth Avenue, and west to Mercado San Augustín—all connected by the Sun Link Streetcar, an electric tram.
It’s no wonder I find myself here so often.
Offbeat Fourth Ave
It’s a Friday night, and my friend Michael and I have decided to “do” downtown. We park on the University of Arizona campus and wait at the streetcar stop, next to Greek-letter adorned sorority girls, hipsters in bold tattoos, smartly dressed older couples, and an ethereal young woman sporting beautiful, emerald-and-teal locks of hair. She looks like a delicate desert mermaid and fits perfectly into the bohemian-yet-cosmopolitan ethos in this area.
We ride straight to Fourth Avenue, a former hippie haven that still caters to eccentrics of all ages. Here is where you’ll find The Food Conspiracy Co-op, which has been purveying organic produce since 1974 and expanded its offerings to include yoga classes and DIY workshops for today’s health-conscious crowd. The venerable Antigone Books, one of Tucson’s oldest independent bookstores, has also been a fixture on Fourth for more than 40 years. Of course, there are plenty of newcomers, like the casual-chic B-Line bistro, or Sky Bar—a solar-powered café by day and astronomy bar at night.
Michael and I opt to dine at a fairly new but quick favorite: Ermanos Craft Beer & Wine Bar. The main dining area has wood flooring and exposed brick walls, honoring the old building’s foundations. We start with a fried avocado, which is topped with a green chili jalapeno ranch drizzle that I am all about. I dig into the Zip Burger when it arrives at our table—it’s made with Arizona beef, “zip sauce,” and burnt onions that make this delectably savory. Michael’s Fig Sandwich is an unexpected combination of fig, creamy goat cheese, onions, and greens. We both exchange bites between mmmmms of approval.
We are soon on the move again, walking the few blocks to downtown past thrift shops and vintage stores, artisan galleries, tattoo parlors, and jam-packed restaurant patios. One patio, in particular, is buzzing with excitement. The Coronet’s dog-friendly patio is usually filled with wagging tales and smiling faces. Dogs just about take flight with their tails spinning like propellers, as servers feed them treats (whether two- or four-legged, all patrons receive great hospitality). Inside the former 1928 hotel, The Coronet also serves rustic European country cuisine for the humans. Last time we were there, we tried a glass of Whiskey Del Bac, a locally made whiskey that sits on the tongue like liquid smoke.
Video: Tucson's Urban Core
Strolling the urban core
When we emerge from the Fourth Avenue underpass, the impossible-not-to-walk-to beats of overturned-buckets-turned drums create an anticipatory soundtrack, as we burst into the sizzling neon of Downtown proper. To our right is the historic Hotel Congress, which has anchored the east end of the street since 1919. Today, it attracts young and old alike and is home to Club Congress, a nationally renowned live-music nightclub. Across from it is the Rialto Theatre—a vaudeville stage turned furniture warehouse, turned adult movie theater, turned condemned building—which has been beautifully renovated and converted into a performance space that showcases top music acts from around the nation.
Congress Street has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to restaurants. There is the posh Maynards Market & Kitchen, located in the restored historic Amtrak train depot—trains pass through here to this day (hence the underpass), and it’s a thrilling rush when dining al fresco. Hub Restaurant and Creamery is famous for its adventurous ice creams. (We opted for Honey Ginger and Salted Caramel—two scoops of heaven, served up in house-made waffle cones.)
There are too many bars along Congress to list (just be assured that whatever your musical bent, you can find it). But one stands out among the rest: H20 Discotec, a fashion-forward dance club replete with backlit-waterfall walls, and a giant aquarium teeming with exotic fish. It also boasts a very cool third-story sky deck, reached via an open-air spiral staircase. It’s a climb, but Michael and I are rewarded with a bird's eye view of downtown, where a giant marquee belonging to the Fox Tucson Theatre immediately grabs my attention. The iconic marquee is a landmark at the center of downtown’s cultural hub and has become a symbol of the area’s thriving resurgence. The Art Deco theater’s lights come alive every night with concerts, shows, films, and more.
As the evening winds down, we stop off at HighWire Lounge, which serves up molecular gastronomy cocktails that look a bit like a plump egg yolk. I toss the blob (technical term) back and it pops as I close my mouth—an intoxicating flavor explosion. Behind us, The Independent Distillery serves up cocktails and a variety of small-batch bourbons, rums, gins, vodkas, and bitters that the owner's craft “from grain to glass.” Next door, a new restaurant is in the works.
Michael and I are admiring the scene around HighWire over a local craft hefeweizen. We toast the evening, and by extension, the renaissance of downtown Tucson. Our modern city center is classic and unconventional, from old favorites to new urban ventures, and always utterly unpredictable at each end. It’s Old West meets New West. And that’s a really wonderful place to be.
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