Roosevelt Row has recently received national media attention as one of the country’s most vibrant arts districts. Fans of the neighborhood know its transformation has occurred largely due to grassroots advocacy and entrepreneurship. Only now is the city catching up with its Roosevelt Streetscape project, adding wider sidewalks, bike lanes, and shade trees to the section of Roosevelt between Central and Seventh Street. One restaurant, Carly’s Bistro, has been part of Roosevelt Row for a long time and is at the center of the district’s transformation.
The narrow sidewalks on Roosevelt have always precluded patio dining, a natural fit for an area known for browsing galleries. With the Streetscape project, Carly’s plans to add a patio with seating for up to 40, adding greatly to the existing seating in the restaurant’s dark interior. The location is at the heart of Roosevelt Row at the north end of Downtown Phoenix, just two blocks east of the Roosevelt / Central light rail station. A bike rack is located outside, and many more of them are expected to be added with the current street improvements.
Fitting its location, Carly’s suggests artsiness in its look and feel. The combination of local art on the walls, murals on the outside, indie music on the speakers, a vegetarian-friendly menu, and late hours would be an obvious fit near any arts district or college campus, but Carly’s was a pioneer in introducing it to Downtown Phoenix. The restaurant is full service but informal in its feel. Customers seat themselves and at any time the employee nearest a table is likely to take orders and clear plates, rather than having one server assigned to a zone.
Carly’s reinforces one of the unwritten rules of restaurant names: Any place that calls itself a “bistro” is unlikely to be an actual bistro. Sure, Carly’s is small and informal and therefore meets the broad definition of “bistro” now prevalent in the industry; however, it lacks the slow-cooked meats and other classic dishes that would define a bistro in France. Instead, Carly’s focuses on sandwiches, salads, and other light fare with a slight Mediterranean accent. The food isn’t always innovative, but it’s satisfying and right for the setting.
The menu begins with a selection of appetizers. Feta rosa is a blend of sharp cheese and pureed red bell peppers. The result is a dip as creamy as hummus but with a bit more color and bite. The accompanying pita bread is grilled and the ridges left from the press make the slices effective for scooping the spread. The Mediterranean bruschetta also uses feta, this time crumbled and paired with olive and artichokes atop four slices of baguette. Tomato bisque is the house soup. It’s smooth if a little tame in flavor compared to other starters.
The salads can all stand on their own as light entrees. The fig salad combines dried fruit with feta for a nice balance of sweet and tart flavors. The beet salad features not only dark taproots, but also cooked green beans, a bed of greens, some pine nuts, a little gorgonzola, and a thick balsamic dressing. A smoked salmon salad attains similar heft through the use of asparagus, avocado, and fingerling potatoes. The Greek salad is a typical combination of cucumbers, tomato, and feta enlivened with a less common ingredient, pickled onions.
Sandwiches are the biggest category on the menu. Over a dozen choices include panini, lavash wraps, and a few cold sandwiches. The Cuban is a popular meaty choice with ham, turkey, and swiss on ciabatta. Equally indulgent is the grilled cheese, which is augmented with prosciutto — confusingly labeled as “bacon” although the Italian cured meat is more like ham. The Tuscan is a meatless sandwich with spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, roasted red pepper, and provolone. All of the sandwiches come with an option of chips, spring mix, or orzo salad.
Carly’s often has two or three seasonal specials, usually indicated on a chalkboard on the sidewalk outside. Some, like the Vietnamese chicken sandwich, essentially a reinterpretation of a banh mi with grilled chicken wrapped in pita garnished with sprigs of fresh cilantro and a sweet-spicy chili sauce, are eventually promoted to the regular menu. Others, like the turkey reuben on marble rye, come and go in an informal rotation. Sandwiches with eggs, as well as morning cocktails like mimosas, fill a separate brunch menu available on weekend mornings.
The dessert selection is limited, usually to chocolate cake or a nutella croissant. That’s okay since there are coffee houses full of pastry within walking distance. Carly’s has a full bar and shows a devotion to craft beer with a changing selection of seasonal drafts noted on a chalkboard behind the bar. Usually there’s a special brew at a reduced price. There’s also a small selection of wine by the glass and a full range of cocktails. The organic lemonade and the desert blossom iced tea are the best non-alcoholic choices.
Since Carly’s opening nearly a decade ago, a lot has changed — mostly for the better — on Roosevelt Row, but it took until 2014 for the city to invest in the infrastructure improvements designed to help the district reach the next level. Some of the choices made, especially the removal of some parallel parking, have been controversial. Still, there’s opportunity with the changes on the street, and the addition of patio dining should make Carly’s, as well as the arts district that surrounds the restaurant, more even more appealing.
128 E. Roosevelt St., Phoenix AZ 85004
Roosevelt / Central Station