Tom’s Tavern in (downtown) Phoenix back in business

by Emily Gersema – Oct. 28, 2011 03:25 PM
Courtesy of The Arizona Republic

[Editor’s Note: Thanks to the Bidwell family for keeping a tradition going. Light Rail Advisors developed and the LightRailConnect Magazine to also support fine dining and entertainment in the Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa light rail corridor]

After a few months of renovations, Tom’s Tavern is back in business.

Tom’s Tavern & 1929 Grill in downtown Phoenix reopened this month, unveiling a new look and a new menu under its new ownership — the Bidwill family, which also owns the Arizona Cardinals.  

The Bidwills bought the restaurant at Central Avenue and Washington Street this year from the Ratner family. The tavern has been around in various incarnations for more than 80 years and became a landmark restaurant for Phoenix politicos and regulars.

“The expectation was that regulars who had been loyal to Tom’s for years would be back after the renovations and that we’d also pick up quite a few new customers,” said Michael Bidwill. “Since reopening a couple weeks ago, that has certainly proven to be the case.”

The Bidwills’ remodel has upgraded Tom’s Tavern decor from diner to chic. The checkerboard floor is gone, replaced by a more elegantly bordered European tile with beige, red and dark-green details. The walls are painted in hues of beige or brown, and they’re covered with black and white photos of politicos, the bar’s former owners, photos of the tavern’s earliest years in the late 1920s, and pictures of some of Phoenix’s historic heavy hitters from now and years ago.

Aged wood and leather booths border the eatery. Leather stools line the bar. Mirrors hang above some of the booths on the sunset side of the restaurant, like the decor of the old Italian restaurants back East. Booths in the back feel private and out of view. Business and political deals could still take place here, as they have for years since Tom Higley, the bar’s first owner, converted the city morgue and pipe shop into the tavern in 1929.

“Our goal was to make it feel like a European tavern when you walked in,” said Greg Freed, the restaurant’s general manager.

Chef Jason Choate has taken over the menus. The breakfast options include various egg and omelet dishes, pancakes and waffles, and some Southwestern specialties such as a breakfast burrito.

Lunch and dinner probably will satisfy Tom’s regulars who prefer traditional bites, such as a burger or fish and chips. The menu also has sophisticated spins on tradition, though — an ahi tuna steak sandwich, seared or barbecued, is served with chipotle aioli. “The smoker” has slow-roasted beef brisket or pulled pork with bourbon barbecue sauce and chipotle macaroni and cheese. Desserts include apple pie, a sponge cake with ganache called “Tom’s Torte,” and a creme brulee.

And Choate installed a meat smoker. This will come in handy come for Thanksgiving, Freed said.

“We hope to sell some smoked turkeys,” he said. “And we are smoking our own meats, which means you’re precooking, so you can turn plates very quickly.”

Tom’s Tavern has added an array of cocktails that put a new twist on some traditional libations, such as the “Tavern Tea,” which has Wild Turkey honey bourbon instead of the traditional whiskey in a Long Island Tea.

The tavern now offers off-site catering.

Tom’s reopened a few months after Sam Fox opened Arrogant Butcher at First and Jefferson streets at CityScape. Fox has seen droves of customers for lunch, dinner and happy hour, which could rival many restaurants in the area.

But Bidwill said he doesn’t believe competition will be a problem. “I wouldn’t say we’re competing with any other restaurants in particular, but I do think, as a whole, downtown Phoenix benefits from having multiple quality options,” he said.

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