The Sheraton Phoenix Downtown Hotel, the new kid on the block among lodging options in the city center, opened in the fall of 2008 after several years of construction and controversy. Long before ground was broken, the financing of the hotel by the City of Phoenix became a source of dispute. Critics saw the City’s $350 million investment in the hotel as nothing short of socialism; defenders saw the action as bit of quasi-Keynesian “priming the pump” in an attempt to resolve a chicken-and-egg dilemma: Conventions weren’t booking in Phoenix due to insufficient hotel rooms Downtown, and hoteliers wouldn’t build Downtown because there weren’t enough convention bookings.
Once ground was broken, another controversy arose in various urbanist circles. Hopes that the new hotel would add a distinctive touch to Phoenix’s skyline were dashed when the building turned out ordinary in shape and beige in color. The groaning finally subsided when the hotel opened for business. Many architectural skeptics conceded that the hotel’s interior was distinctive and represented an attempt to remake the normally inconsistent and stodgy Sheraton brand. The news got even better when it became apparent that the hotel restaurant, District, doesn’t feel like a typical hotel restaurant at all.
District, which labels itself an “American kitchen and wine bar,” goes out of its way to create an identity distinct from the hotel it occupies. The restaurant has its own Web site and its own entrance facing the corner of Third Street and Van Buren, approximately halfway between the Van Buren / Central Avenue (northbound) and Van Buren / 1st Avenue (southbound) stations and the 3rd St. / Washington (westbound) and the 3rd St. / Jefferson (eastbound) stations. Enter through this door and there’s a lounge and bar on the right and a host station for the dining room on the left. Past the host station, there are three dining rooms with high ceilings, a smaller room for private dining, and an appealing patio.
District takes its “American kitchen” theme seriously. The emphasis is on classic American dishes with modern twists, and ingredients are sourced locally when feasible. In fact, the restaurant’s Web site and menu go out of their way to name-check Arizona purveyors such as the Farm at South Mountain, Schreiner’s Sausage, Nimbus Brewery, and Desert Sweet Shrimp. The approach extends to the bar where 10 domestic microbrews are on tap, including interesting choices like Rogue Dead Guy Ale. The wines also appear to be 100% of U.S. origin.
The ingredient quality shows in the food, which seems to hitting the right notes at every step in the menu. Appetizers include items as simple as local greens with goat cheese and vinaigrette dressing and baked tomato soup, which combines a nice tangy flavor with a generous topping of melted fontina cheese. In the entree department, chicken pot pie (center photo below) might sound like a TV-dinner cliche, but this version never could have come out of a metal tray. There’s a billowy roof of puff pastry over generous chunks of white meat, and instead of mere potato chunks, there are little potato dumplings mixed in.
The kitchen also does well with seafood. Wild salmon on a cedar plank is paired with risotto adorned with shrimp and asparagus. It’s not a strikingly original preparation, but it’s an accomplished one. The fish and chips entree features golden pieces of Alaskan cod and thin fries seasoned with the Old Bay blend. There’s a nice house-made tartar sauce on the side.
If these choices sound tasty but not necessarily innovative, same room for dessert. This is where it gets interesting. Pumpkin Whoopie Pie (right photo below) makes sense as a fall dessert, but this is not like grandma’s pumpkin pie (as delicious as that may be). This “pie” is actually three little sandwiches in which macaroon-like, pumpkin-rich creations enclose a creamy center. If that decadence isn’t enough, there’s also a bourbon malt shake served on the side.
Although District has had a strong enough debut to impress some of the Sheraton’s most outspoken critics, there are a few opportunities for improvement. The first would be to add daily specials to the menu. Since District emphasizes fresh and local ingredients, there’s no reason not to give the kitchen room to play with them. Similarly, the wine bar aspect of District needs some upgrading. The wine selection will please most every palate with solid selections like Erath Pinot Noir, but it would be good to have some more offbeat, undiscovered wines on the list. Likewise, the addition of flights would add some genuine wine bar credibility.
District’s service is generally quite good in terms of knowledge of the menu and responsiveness to customer needs. The restaurant recently added a children’s menu with the same attention to quality as its adult counterpart. Kids may be offered familiar standbys like grilled cheese and tomato soup, but the ingredient quality is several notches above typical kiddie fare. Families with young children may be more comfortable eating on the patio, which is more casual than the dining room. Fulfilling its role as hotel restaurant, District serves three meals a day, seven days a week.
320 N. Third St., Phoenix AZ 85004