With the Downtown Phoenix real estate market heating up after years of sluggishness, it’s not surprising to see a major high-rise office complex change hands. At the end of 2016, it was announced that Renaissance Square, known for its twin towers linked by a sky bridge, had been sold to new owners for $151 million. No doubt renovations and some new tenants are likely to follow, but some parts of the complex represent a legacy even older than the buildings themselves. Tom’s Tavern, the property’s main full service restaurant, has existed since 1929.
Tom’s operated nearby until the late 1980s when it moved to its current site at the corner of First Avenue and Washington Street, just across the street from the eastbound Jefferson / First Avenue light rail station and a block from the westbound Washington / Central platform. Look for the restaurant in the low-rise portion of Renaissance Square along Washington. A vertical sign on the corner guides the way past the patio and towards the main entrance. Bike racks are built into some of the nearby parking meters on Washington and around the corner on First Avenue.
The dining room if full of white tile, dark wood, and vintage photos reflecting the restaurant’s past. A large bar with seating on three sides defines the center of the room while a long line of booths extending far back into the restaurant’s interior provides privacy for deal making or dates. The dining room is full of TVs showing cable news and sports, thankfully with the sound almost always turned off. Tom’s is the type of place in which the waitstaff are still found wearing white shirts and button-down vests, a look that hasn’t changed much since the restaurant’s founding.
There was an actual Tom, last name Higley, when the restaurant first opened, and the atmosphere was indeed that of a tavern, emphasizing drinks and pool. Since then, ownership has changed several times, most recently in 2016 when the restaurant was acquired by its own general manager. Now, Tom’s Tavern has one foot in its own past, reflected by its nostalgic comfort food, and one foot in contemporary trends with new menu additions and another attempt at later hours. (Traditionally, Tom’s has been a weekday place with dinner service ending at eight.)
At lunch, Tom’s stays close to its own traditions with crowd-pleasing classics that its regular customers have known for years, or even decades. A big bowl of brisket chili, full of beef and beans with a slow burn that becomes apparent just about halfway through the meal, is a timeless lunch choice here. Diced red onions and shredded cheddar cheese make the bowl complete. Likewise, a soup of the day, available by the cup or the bowl just like the chili, is usually a familiar favorite such as chicken-and-vegetable or New England clam chowder.
A duo of “Tom’s Things” is a distinct part of the menu devoted to enduring entrees. Chicken pot pie is served in a metal dish with a light, airy crust only on top. Below is a mix of poultry (mostly white meat, a little dark), carrots, green beans, and corn. The other “thing,” fish and chips, is three slabs of crispy cod on a bed of fries with a side of coleslaw. Sandwiches such as a sloppy Joe, shaved turkey, a Buffalo chicken wrap, and the Philly — shaved ribeye, melted cheese, grilled onions and peppers, and just a bit of grease — add to the old school feel.
Blue plate specials are part of a weekly rotation. Fried chicken with mashed potatoes and green beans is featured Monday, followed of course by Taco Tuesday. Wednesday it’s a seafood special, Thursday is devoted to a supple veal meatloaf with roasted carrots, and Friday brings a small steak with fries. Lighter alternatives available throughout the week include salads such as thyme roasted beets. The mixed red and gold roots sit in large chunks atop mixed greens with nuts, goat cheese, and the option to add a protein source such as grilled chicken, salmon, or shrimp.
At night, Tom’s newer, more adventurous spirit becomes more evident. Some of the recent appetizers additions include buttermilk fried oysters and an asparagus potato tart. The tart, served by the slice, has flaky crust with enough egg to be reminiscent of a quiche. Daily dinner specials feature meats such as lamb or fish such as ono. The latter has been served over German potato salad with green beans and mushrooms. Pork belly stars as one of the richer meat entrees in the evening, and roasted garlic and ricotta ravioli offers a meatless alternative.
Although the restaurant has done a great deal to expand and upgrade its menu, particularly when it comes to dinner, dessert still seems a work in progress. The menu lists two standards: chocolate chip cookies and milkshakes. Both are expertly prepared. The cookie is chewy and fresh out of the oven, and the shakes are rich and flavorful. Nevertheless, the selection stops short of what would be expected at destination restaurant. Some evening dessert specials have been added, but they also tend to sell out early in the evening, well before the dinner crowd is likely to have peaked.
As its “tavern” name would suggest, Tom’s has a full liquor license with a wide selection of spirits, wine by the glass, and an array of draft beer that includes some local favorites like Phoenix Ale Brewery’s Biltmore Blonde. It has been nearly a century since the original tavern version of Tom’s opened. With both the restaurant itself and the larger building having changed ownership in recent months, Tom’s Tavern is now striking its own balance between catering to a traditional business lunch crowd and innovating just enough to make it a more interesting destination after dark.
2 N. Central Ave., Phoenix AZ 85004
Washington / Central (westbound) and Jefferson / First Avenue (eastbound) stations