Blog Archives

Saving Downtown Phoenix’s Gems

[Source: Jack Fitzpatrick, DowntownDevil.com]

Save Phoenix’s gems with your business — before it’s too late

It was an easy decision. I wanted to go somewhere nice on my first day back in Phoenix, and Pasta Bar was the destination.

It’s one of those hot spots that every city has — the one with great food, maybe a little expensive, but is a must-try for anyone wanting to be considered a real local.

Pasta Bar closed its doors after being open for nearly two years, while Verde, a nearby restaurant, shut down in December 2010 after being open only seven months. (Salvador Rodriguez/DD)

On the list of great Phoenix restaurants, Pasta Bar was way up there. It was a starter on the All-Star team, the kind of place you tell out-of-towners about so they’re impressed with your city. The quality of food was top notch — some of the best in downtown Phoenix — and the atmosphere was great.

Too bad it was never busy.

Which explains why the doors were locked and the lights were off when I got there. The sign outside said it was open 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays, and it was only about 8 p.m.

The next day I heard from a friend that it was closed for good.

Thus began the stages of grief, starting with denial. There was no way Pasta Bar could have closed. It had a great location, close to the Downtown campus — less than a five-minute walk — and the food was delicious. It didn’t make sense.

After denial came the anger and guilt. Why had we, the Downtown campus, let Pasta Bar down? Everyone talks about how much they hate the dining hall and how Aramark’s convenience store prices are ridiculous, but no one wants to put in the effort of finding alternatives. This is why we can’t have nice things!

And it happened barely a month after Verde, a little north up First Street, closed just seven months after opening. That’s two places within leisurely walking distance of the campus. Both were the kind of restaurants that focused on the quality of their food more than anything else, but struggled to bring in the necessary clientele. Are we ignoring Phoenix’s best food for the expediency of the dining hall, the convenience store and the nearby Subway restaurants?

There are other stages of grief, but after a talk with urbanism expert Yuri Artibise I skipped to acceptance. Artibise reminded me of the sad truth that restaurants fail all the time. For a restaurant to close after two years — Pasta Bar was nearing its second birthday — is not surprising in a bad economy.

In fact, Artibise said, we probably have too many restaurants downtown for our relatively low population. And with the influx of 12 new restaurants in CityScape that have opened or are going to open this year, something had to give.

“There’s a big push for entertainment and a big push for restaurants,” Artibise said, “but you just can’t have dozens of restaurants downtown without all that many people. And then with CityScape opening up … you know, it’s tough.”

Plus, Pasta Bar was expensive. Only two entrees were less than $14 and even the appetizers cost as much as $12. When college students make up a large percentage of a restaurant’s business, things need to be affordable.

So it wasn’t all our fault. Pasta Bar was too expensive to be a regular stop for ASU students and too far from the sports arenas to benefit from game days.

But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do in the future. Maybe we do have too many restaurants, but we can never have too many good ones.

“What students can do,” Artibise said, “is save your job money, and don’t be restricted by where your meal card gets you.”

Even if Pasta Bar’s closing wasn’t our fault, there’s more we can do in the future. ASU students make up a significant portion of the downtown population, so if we enthusiastically endorse a business, it stays. But it does take enthusiasm. The choices ASU students make will be integral in defining downtown Phoenix as an up-and-coming area rather than one that struggles through the recession. If the city of Phoenix can invest hundreds of millions of dollars in this campus, we can invest $15 in a great bowl of pasta, at least every once in a while. On date night or when your parents come to town, take advantage of Phoenix’s unique restaurants.

So here’s the silver lining to the cloud of Pasta Bar’s closing. Because of Pasta Bar’s great location, we had two other delicious options nearby after finding it locked up: Sens Asian Tapas and Turf Irish Pub. There are other great restaurants that we can support. The city of Phoenix needs ASU to help keep its best businesses afloat.

Be an advocate. You don’t have to spend all that much, but when you do leave the dining hall, make sure the businesses you endorse are important to your community. When it comes to good food downtown, use it or lose it.

Contact the reporter at john.l.fitzpatrick@asu.edu

New restaurant cluster emerging along downtown Phoenix’s Roosevelt St.

[Source: Howard Seftel, Arizona Republic] — A new cluster of restaurants looks poised to bring some energy to yet another part of downtown Phoenix.  This time the location is the stretch along Roosevelt Street between Second and Third Avenues.

There’s Bambino Bistro, formerly Vinery 214. Chef/owner Leonard Jay threw in the towel on Vinery’s small-plate concept — the neighborhood didn’t get it, he says with a sigh.  Now, armed with a new name and concept, the restaurant features sandwiches built around three kinds of homemade flatbread; from-scratch pasta; wood-fired, brick-oven pizza; burgers; mussels; and several off-beat specials… Bambino Bistro is a cute spot that could turn out to be a neighborhood sleeper.  Jay, meanwhile, is determined: “We’ve made a commitment to the community,” he says.  “No matter what it takes, we’re going to be here.”

A few feet down the block is Lola Coffee, the second branch of Daniel Wayne’s hip coffeehouse.  (The original is at 4700 N. Central Avenue, just south of Camelback Road.)  It opened Dec. 18 in the remodeled circa 1925 Gold Spot Market building.  Why here? “Downtown is finally ready,” Wayne says, pointing to the growing number of neighborhood residents.  He’s roasting his coffee beans and baking pastries on the premises.

Finally, the 10th Valley branch of Pita Jungle is coming to the same building as Lola Coffee.  It’s scheduled to open by the end of March.

By my count, the area bounded by Fourth Avenue on the west and Fourth Street on the east, and Roosevelt and Fillmore Streets on the north and south, is now home to 10 new places in the past year.  Along with Bambino Bistro, Lola Coffee and Pita Jungle, the list includes Nine 05, Local Breeze, Pasta Bar, Sens, Turf Restaurant & Pub, Moira Sushi and Phoenix Public Market Urban Grocery and Wine Bar.  And several more restaurants are on the way.  [Note: To read the full article, visit New restaurant cluster emerging along downtown Phoenix’s Roosevelt St.]

Viewpoint: downtown Phoenix businesses finally scoring

[Source: Arizona Republic editorial board] — A bit more than a year ago, downtown Phoenix business owners wondered out loud where all the Arizona State University students were.  There may have been more than 8,000 registered for classes downtown, they said, but they weren’t showing up in their shops and restaurants.  One year later… check that concern.  Parts of downtown, particularly the region north of the downtown ASU campus, are being overrun with Sun Devils.  Or perhaps it is simply young people in general. Whoever these kids are, they are beginning to swarm throughout central Phoenix in impressive numbers at last.

The most notable demonstration of the blossoming of the central city continues to be the First Friday events, of course.  On Nov. 5, the city closed off East Roosevelt from North Central Avenue to Seventh Street to traffic for the first time, allowing the throngs of attendees to overflow the streets without fear of automobiles.

The growing First Friday crowds and the widening ASU footprint have attracted entrepreneurs like Kyle Simone and Jeff Mann to open shops like their Phoenicia Association, a combination men’s clothier and art gallery.  The youth traffic persuaded restaurateur Wade Moises to open the popular PastaBAR at First Street and Pierce Street, in the same building with Sens Asian Tapas and the now popular Irish bar Turf.  [Note: Read the full article at Viewpoint: downtown Phoenix businesses finally scoring.]

Out until 2 a.m.? Toast new Phoenix light rail hours

[Source: Sean Holstege and Megan Finnerty, Arizona Republic] — Valley residents and business owners will get their wish for late-night, light-rail service today when Metro starts running weekend trains until the early-morning hours.  For Friday- and Saturday-night revelers and other late travelers, the shift means that the last trains will pull out of the end-of-line stations about 3:15 a.m. rather than 12:15 a.m.  Night owls can catch a train along the 20-mile route until about 3:30 a.m.  The last trains run only about halfway down the line.  The final weekend trains running the entire length leave at about 2 a.m.

Patrons, business owners and civic promoters see the longer hours as an opportunity for downtown Phoenix and Tempe’s Mill Avenue to prove they can achieve the kind of exciting nightlife other big cities have.  Bar and restaurant patrons will have less of a reason to go home early and less of a need to appoint a designated driver, unless they’re using park-and-ride lots.  Those needs hinder the area’s ability to generate business and street life, some patrons say.  “I think they should have done this in the first place,” said Josh Agustin, 33, bar manager at Pasta Bar, one of downtown Phoenix’s newest restaurants.  “The lack of light rail is the biggest complaint I hear.  I think that a lot of people leave the downtown early because of light rail (hours).  Now, people will come in later.”

Metro spokeswoman Hillary Foose said the service also will help late-night workers and downtown concertgoers by giving them another way to get home.   “People are overwhelmingly excited about it,” Foose said.  “(Still) it’s hard to say what reception this late-night service will receive.”

To help promote the change, Kimber Lanning, director of non-profit Local First Arizona, is working with downtown music destinations to offer discounts for concerts and other incentives for riding light rail.  Various bar and restaurant owners are planning similar promotions.  Local First Arizona promotes doing business with companies based in the state.  Metro plans to run extended weekend hours indefinitely but has enough federal money to pay for only the first year of extra service, which costs an estimated $250,000.  The Regional Public Transportation Authority hiked fares sharply on Wednesday because of rising costs and declining municipal sales-tax revenue, which helps finance the system.   [Note: To read the full article, click here.]

Viewpoint: Beyond chains and cheese (restaurant madness and what it means for downtown Phoenix)

Popularity of Matt's Big Breakfast fostered other local restaurant startups.

[Source: Life in Downtown Phoenix blog] — While the arts community was the first generation of pioneers to successfully lift downtown Phoenix out of its doldrums, the second wave of downtown resurgence came from the independent restaurants that gambled on the area.  By 2005, places like Matt’s Big Breakfast, Cibo, and Fate proved that independent restaurants with quality food could really have success downtown.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and 2009 is really proving that as the number of restaurants opening their doors all around the aforementioned downtown pioneers is staggering.  Already this year the Turf (formerly Turf Accountant), Pasta Bar, El Portal, and Sapna’s Cafe have opened.  By the end of the month Moira will bring sushi back to downtown for the first time in years, and sometime soon Luke’s of Chicago will start a branch on Seventh Street in a renovated historic building while a Mediterranean restaurant is set to appear on Roosevelt Street just east of Third Avenue.  Almost every one of those restaurants is within a half-mile radius of the original Matt’s/Fate duo that got things rolling.  Amidst all this Palette apparently closed — which is shocking for anyone like me who was part of the sometimes-90 minute wait on the weekends for brunch — but the rumor is that someone else wanted the location and that Pallette will resurface somewhere else in the area.

Assuming these businesses can survive the current economic conditions, they’ll be poised to really help downtown surge when the housing market finally turns around.  Downtown Phoenix probably already stood alone with Tempe’s Mill Avenue and Old Town Scottsdale as options for those who live in the Phoenix area and prefer walkable urban environments.  But aided in no small part by this restaurant boom, downtown has separated itself from the chains of Mill and the cheese of Scottsdale as probably the premiere locale for urbanists.  While downtown Phoenix is of course only beginning to catch up with even its western competitors in places like Denver and Portland, it has clearly established some positive momentum.  [Note: To read more of downtown_resident’s views, click here.]