The transformation of Roosevelt Row over the past decade seems a lot like a three-act play. In the first act, small businesses and art galleries pioneered in a neglected area and adapted neglected vintage buildings. In the second act, the district received attention and recognition from city government, resulting in a streetscape project that added bike lanes and widened sidewalks to create opportunities for patio dining. Carly’s Bistro has not only survived but improved during the first two acts. Now, it’s only logical to wonder what will happen in the third act.
The third act for the neighborhood is characterized by residential construction. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the one-story building that houses Carly’s and its neighbors eventually replaced with something larger. The modest structure is found just two blocks east of the Roosevelt / Central light rail station. A bike rack is located in front of the tattoo shop next door and around the corner under part of the “Shadow Play” art and shade structure. A patio, added after the recent street and sidewalk improvements, fronts Roosevelt, and a colorful mural faces Second Street.
Fitting its location, Carly’s suggests artsiness in its look and feel. The combination of locally-produced artwork on the walls, 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 specific zone within the dining room.
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 in the most strict, classical sense of the word. 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 even more effective for scooping the spread. The Mediterranean bruschetta also uses feta, this time crumbled and paired with olive and artichokes atop four slices of toasted baguette. Tomato bisque is the house soup. It’s smooth in texture 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 lettuce, 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 starts as a typical combination of cucumbers, tomato, and feta but is enlivened with a less common ingredient, marinated 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 as a side dish.
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 to a few choices like chocolate cake or a nutella croissant. That’s okay since there are several 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 counter. Usually there’s a special brew offered at a reduced price. There’s also a small selection of wine by the glass and a range of cocktails, refreshingly all priced at under $10. The organic lemonade and the desert blossom iced tea are the best non-alcoholic choices.
Since Carly’s opening over a decade ago, a lot has changed — mostly for the better — on Roosevelt Row, and the third act embodied in the current boom is not only inevitable, but also a net positive development in terms of bringing housing to the north end of Downtown Phoenix and the light rail corridor. While a few businesses have been displaced, others, such as nearby Jobot, have found new homes within the burgeoning apartment buildings. Carly’s has capably adapted and played a central role in the first two acts. Let’s hope it stays around for the third.
128 E. Roosevelt St., Phoenix AZ 85004