Unique Restaurants and Bars in Tucson
Knowing that I grew up in Tucson, Arizona, a friend recently asked me for a list of Tucson Restaurants for their visit. My immediate reaction was to say “Let me call someone for a current list” as I am no longer up-to-speed with the current restaurants scene after leaving Tucson after college. “Wait” my friend said, “I want the quirky and unique places in Tucson that have been there 25+ years”. So I racked my brain for the list from years ago. After doing a quick check to see if they still exist (and most of them do), here are the Top 12 Restaurants & Bars meeting the criteria: quirky, unique (Tucson only) and historic (25+ years) list of Tucson Restaurants.
To Combat the HEAT
To start your visit to Tucson which will likely be several degrees above what you are used to… let’s start with an Eegee’s. What the heck is an Eegee? It’s a really, really good slushy drink (Sugar, Water and Natural Fruit Juices). Started in 1971 by Ed Irving (E in Eegee) and Bob Greenberg (The G in Eegee), the original store was actually a truck selling a lemon slushie drink. They quickly expanded to stores all around Tucson and more flavors: Lemon, Pina Colada, Strawberry and a flavor of the month. It’s super refreshing in the hot Arizona sun. I know… it’s a dry heat. (If you are from AZ, you will get that joke).
To start off the list, you have to go with the restaurant that claims “The oldest Mexican food restaurant in the country continually operated by the same family”: the original El Charro. Founded in 1922, it is also the oldest Mexican restaurant in Tucson. The restaurant was started by Tia Monica Flin who came to Tucson when her father was commissioned to build Tucson’s St. Augustine Cathedral. Not only did this woman start a business in time when women usually did not, she also invented the chimichanga when she dropped a burro in a pan of oil. El Charro serves Northern Sonoran food with all the classics and the adjacent cantina has some of the finest margaritas in town. There are multiple locations but my vote is for the original on Court Ave.
Casa Molina has been family owned and operated since 1947. Entering the restaurant, you will feel the authenticity as the furniture is custom-made by Gilberto Molina Sr., from hand hewn mesquite tree forks & pine slabs and most of the other decor is direct from Mexico. The Mexican food is delicious and includes all the favorite tacos, enchiladas, tamales and more.
And you can’t miss this place driving down Speedway with the the statue of El Toro, the Brave Black Bull who always is “redecorated” on holidays. There must be 100’s of layers of paint by now as someone first pointed this out to me in high school… look closely to figure that one out.
Pinnacle Peak Steakhouse was built in 1962 and offers a classic Western steak dinner. Look up and you will notice a lot of ties hanging everywhere. This is a “No Tie establishment” and if you wear one, you will hear a large cowbell and see your server coming at you with large scissors to cut it off. We used to buy old ties from thrift stores and make our guests wear them before taking them to dinner here. The steakhouse is located in Trail Dust Town where you can stroll the town square, visit shops and take an old-time photograph dressed in Western attire. On weekends, they often have a Wild West Stunt show.
El Corral Steakhouse is another classic steak house that has a history dating back 75 years. The first restaurant/tavern was built as a ranch house in 1926.
The Hotel Congress, was built in 1919 directly across from the Southern Pacific Railroad Depot and the establishment has the signs of that era – high ceilings, an opulent, expansive lobby and exposed-brick, bearing walls. A 1934 fire destroyed the hotel’s third floor, which was never rebuilt, and this fire triggered a series of events which led to the arrest of the outlaw John Dillinger who was staying at the hotel to “lay low” when the fire occurred. The Tap Room is the bar inside the hotel and The Cup Cafe offers Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner. Check out their schedule for local bands playing here also. In the last decade, Tucson’s Downtown has seen a lot of renovation of the 19th century buildings. The Railroad Depot is now a restaurant called Maynard’s. On Monday nights, a locale group, Meet Me at Maynard’s coordinates a walk/run around the Downtown area with numbers greater than 500 weekly. A great way to walk through Downtown safely and see a lot of the really neat old buildings.
Walk into Little Anthony’s Diner and you will walk right into a 1950’s diner with checkerboard floors and red vinyl booths. The DJ or jukebox will be playing all the 50’s favorites and waitresses, waiters and busboys will be in classic uniforms. You can get all the American classics here from Burgers, Diner favorites (Meatloaf, Country Fried Steak & other Blue Plate Specials) and a healthier option (Things Elvis would not eat). The Diner is actually an offshoot of the Gaslight Theatre that is located next door. This is a live melodrama theatre with five shows a year where you classically cheer the hero and boo the villain. Get tickets if you can, they sell out fast. I am a little biased as I worked here all through high school and college and coming here means coming home to see family. A must-see Tucson experience!
Hacienda del Sol dates back to 1929 when the original owners created a retreat ranch school with Moorish architecture for the daughters of society’s elite families. The names included Vanderbilt, Pillsbury, Maxwell, Westinghouse, and Campbell. The retreat underwent renovations over the years and was converted into a guest ranch in 1948 and became an attraction for the Silver Screen’s most popular stars including John Wayne and Clark Gable. Legend has it that the Hacienda’s Casita Grande was a favorite romantic hideaway of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Further renovations in 1999 have restored the property again and this is a wonderful place to stay and/or to dine at The Grill restaurant in a more upscale environment with beautiful views of the Tucson Mountains.
The Buffet is Tucson’s oldest bar started in 1934 after the repeal of Prohibition. With hours from 6am to 2am, this is a dive bar at it’s best. One of Esquire Magazine’s top bars in the country, it is beloved by a very interesting set of locals and visitors alike. They have 2 happy minutes daily at 6:00pm and 11:00pm were you get a 2 drinks. The second repeat drink is a $1.
The Shanty was a college standard for our neighborhood Irish bar, though the clientele is of all ages. Opened in the 1930’s, the bar still has an old feel to it with a great selection of drinks and make sure to check out the back patio. Drop by on your birthday and receive a free Shanty t-shirt with your drink purchase.
The mottoes at The Shelter: It’s candy for your eyes, It’s twister for thirsty adults; Go-Go Boot wearing, Martini Drinking, Swanky Groovy Lounge. Opened in 1962, this bar is stuck in that era and from the outside looks like a bomb shelter. Walk inside and it’s all 60’s Kitsch – Groovy Lamps, JFK memorabilia, Velvet, Period Music and swanky martinis.
Kon Tiki, opened in 1963 is a Polynesian overload. They serve both food and drink, but let’s face it, you come here for the Scorpion Bowl. Kon Tiki has not changed much over the years and you will find different exotic creatures behind the bar from birds to a Monitor Lizard (Thor). The large aquarium once held Piranah fish. When movies were being shot in and around Tucson the Kon Tiki played host to the stars, including Clint Eastwood, Robert Mitchum, and Robert Wagner.
A farewell to the following which were Tucson standard 25+ years ago that are now gone, but I am sure a few of you remember:
- Gordo’s – The former restaurant on Broadway & Kolb with the famous TV comercials – That’s a Ganga!
- Hidden Valley Inn – A local steak house dating back to the 1960’s, it burned down in the 1990’s. Remember that flea circus display?
- Austin’s Ice Cream – This is where you parents took you for the birthday sundae.
- Bobby McGee’s – If you did not work at one of the ice cream shops in town, you probably worked here as a valet or a waiter in costume.
- The Charles – A 1934 mansion in the Italian Renaissance Style with a long history in Tucson, this became The Charles restaurant and was one of the upscale places to dine. It is now closed.
What did I miss on the list of Tucson Restaurants? What would be on your list of quirky, unique and historic places for visitors of Tucson?
She lives a Life Re-Imagined exploring the world in her version of the American Dream.