Updated July 3, 2014: After experimenting with serving breakfast, keeping later hours in the evening, and staying open on weekends, Tom’s Tavern has reverted to its classic business model of lunch and early dinner on weekdays only.
Local leaders were recently elated to learn of the National Football League’s decision to locate the 2015 Super Bowl in Glendale. While the game itself will occur at the Cardinals’ stadium out by the 101 Freeway, Downtown Phoenix has seen a lot of changes since the last Super Bowl here, so there may be more activities and visitors concentrated in the city core this time. You don’t have to wait three years, however, to see how a Glendale-based football organization can affect the heart of Phoenix. Instead, look at has happened in 2011 with Tom’s Tavern.
|view from the rail station|
Tom’s Tavern has a long history. The original tavern on Adams Street was founded in 1929, closed in the ‘70s, and then reappeared a block away at First Avenue and Washington in the late ‘80s. From then until the recent death of owner Michael Ratner, it operated as place for Downtown workers and politcos to gather, often more for the atmosphere than the food. After Ratner’s passing, the restaurant was turned over to the Bidwill family, the owners of the Cardinals team. After being closed several months for renovation, the restaurant is back in business.
|entrance and patio|
The restored Tom’s Tavern strikes a balance between respecting the business’ history and updating the restaurant to be successful in 2011. The decor has been upgraded with an emphasis on dark wood and tile. A few cues on the wall suggest billiards once played a role, but the floor space is now devoted entirely to eating and drinking. A patio addresses Washington Street, across the street from the First Avenue / Jefferson light rail station for eastbound passengers and a block from the Washington / Central station for those heading west.
|half chicken with mac and cheese|
With the new look comes a new chef, Jason Choate, and some changes to the menu. Now, as in the tavern’s past, the menu is mostly traditional American food with an emphasis on meat. This time around, though, the meats benefit from being smoked on the premises. The well-liked chili, made with brisket rather than ground beef, is a nod to the restaurant’s past. It has beans and noticeable heat that builds with each spoonful. The spice is not overpowering if enjoying a cup as an appetizer, but break out the proton pump inhibitors if indulging in an oversized bowl.
|bowl of chili|
The brisket is also featured in an entree platter and a sandwich. It’s excellent barbecue: tender, lean, smoky, and nicely topped with a garnish of fried onion. The sandwich, like the burgers, comes with a choice of shoestring fries or a lighter option, jalapeno lime coleslaw. The slaw here is more tangy than spicy, but it’s a refreshing departure from soupy, sweet versions of the popular side. For $1.50 extra, mac and cheese is also available to complement sandwiches and burgers. Expect a creamy version of the classic dish topped with powdered chipotle and bacon.
|brisket sandwich with slaw|
The burgers are impressive here with a choice of ground brisket, ground turkey, a veggie burger, or a chicken breast in between halves of the toasted egg-glazed buns. Turkey burgers can sometimes be lifeless alternatives to beef, but here the poultry, like the red meat, is smoked. The result is an alternative burger that is flavorful and moist enough to compete with its traditional counterpart. Top it with chili if still longing for a little beef taste. In another instance of the current “egg on top” trend, a fried one can be added to any burger for two dollars more.
|chili burger with mac and cheese|
The blue plate specials from the old Tom’s are no longer on the menu. With the updated decor, the diner feel has largely vanished. There are, however, daily soups and more often than not, they incorporate the barbecued meats coming out of the kitchen. Creamy chicken was excellent with a smooth texture and plenty of tender poultry, turkey vegetable had a pleasing smoky flavor and plenty of hearty chunks of carrots, but, like so many restaurant soups, it was thrown out of balance by a heavy hand with the salt shaker.
|turkey vegetable soup|
There’s no hiding the fact that Tom’s is unabashedly meat-centric, but there are some vegetarian choices. The veggie burger is always available with choice of toppings and sides, but a lighter and more intriguing option is the quinoa garbanzo spinach salad. The name is self-explanatory. Those three ingredients are the stars, and they blend successfully into a nutritious mix with an appealing nutty flavor. The half portion served in combination with a cup of soup will satisfy only the smallest appetites. Go for the full serving if choosing this entree.
|half serving of quinoa spinach salad|
No doubt, Tom’s experiences its heaviest traffic at lunch, drawing regulars from nearby office towers and government buildings. The restaurant serves breakfast until 10:30 with pancakes made from a choice of three different batters and French toast glazed with orange-flavored syrup. They all come with a choice of breakfast meats on the side. The bacon is familiar favorite, but it’s the turkey sausage that is an unexpected hit. The big, spicy, smoky patty is made on premises from coarsely ground meat and not dry at all like so many turkey sausages.
|French toast with turkey sausage|
Unlike the old Tom’s, this incarnation is trying to stay open a little bit later in the evening and on weekends. That’s a bit of a gamble given how empty this section of Downtown can seem when major events are not occurring. Tom’s is a short distance from theater, nightclubs, and arenas, so any activity at those venues can be combined with a meal there. Nevertheless, the updated menu and decor make Tom’s worthwhile as a destination on its own. The next local Super Bowl is still three years away, but the resurrected Tom’s Tavern can be enjoyed right away.
2 N. Central Ave., Phoenix AZ 85004
Washington / Central (westbound) and Jefferson / First Avenue (eastbound) stations