The phrase “dead end street” doesn’t usually have a positive connotation. Literally, it means only one way in and out. Figuratively, it suggests a failed project. Maybe that’s why the fancier sounding “cul-de-sac” has become the preferred wording. In Midtown, many local streets were converted to cul-de-sacs over a decade ago in order to mitigate traffic in the adjacent Willo historic district. For Oven+Vine, a restaurant on the boundary between Willo and the Midtown commercial corridor, an address on a literal dead-end doesn’t have to lead to a figurative one.
To clarify, when the east-west streets connecting Willo to the Central Avenue spine were altered, passages for pedestrians and bicyclists were preserved, but motor vehicles have since had to turn around at or near First Avenue. This means that those arriving by car can approach Oven+Vine only from Central Avenue. Fortunately, the Encanto / Central light rail station is just half a block east of Oven+Vine’s location on Vernon Street. A bike rack is found along the curb, right in front of the restaurant’s smaller sibling, Birdhaus Coffeebar.
Oven+Vine occupies the back half of a vintage building bordering a pocket park developed by a previous coffee house. The park provides some space for light-duty outdoor recreation (cornhole rather than baseball) and relaxation during mild weather. It also accommodates a small outdoor bar counter for the restaurant. While the mostly vacant retail space in the massive Tapestry condominium building across the street continues to languish a decade after construction, these small businesses on the north side of Vernon have activated the block.
Inside, it’s open seating with a tall community table in the middle of the small dining room, smaller tables on the periphery, and a four-seat bar. The building is full of brick, both inside and out, and there’s a cozy fireplace inside the dining room. These touches go with the theme suggested in the restaurant’s name. Most of the food is roasted, braised, or baked in a brick oven in the open kitchen, and the menu focuses on dishes that pair well with the small bar’s wine offerings, along with a changing selection of craft beer.
Despite the emphasis on the oven, one way to start a meal is with a charcuterie-and-cheese board that doesn’t require any time inside the brick behemoth. Boards of three or four items are available in any combination from both the cheese and meat columns. Salads begin with a base of greens and then add roasted or smoked ingredients. Warm vegetable appetizers include earthy roasted mushrooms, fingerling potatoes with rosemary, cheesy au gratin potatoes, and assorted roasted vegetables such as carrots and beets.
Bread is not only provided alongside many entrees, but also serves as a foundation for flatbreads, oblong pizzas ideal for two to share along with a salad or a side dish. Many, such as the margherita, the most traditional, and the bianca, white with no sauce, are familiar from pizza menus around town. Others like the spicy “Earl” involve more distinctive combinations such as fiery jalapeno slices contrasted with mild ricotta cheese. The sopressata and prosciutto found elsewhere on the menu are used often as toppings, as is local favorite Schreiner’s sausage.
While many items at Oven+Vine are meant to be shared, sandwiches make sense for weekday lunches for one. The selection is small but well crafted. The “Bacontrarian” is exactly as it sounds: loads of bacon with lettuce and tomato. The roasted vegetable sandwich is a meatless counterpoint, and the Italian sandwich is rich in sopressata and fontina cheese. Somewhat surprisingly, Oven+Vine’s appealing roasted chicken doesn’t find its way into a sandwich, even though it might work quite well between some pieces of the house bread.
The heartiest entrees on the menu are identified as “specialties.” These are braised meats, combined with assertive sauces, and served with vegetables or potatoes, either roasted fingerlings or au gratin, as a side dish. Supple pulled chicken or pork are served in a mild green chili sauce that can be fired up with optional jalapeno slices, while the braised beef entree comes in a darker ancho chili preparation. On weekends, there is often a seafood special such as Scottish salmon or parmesan-crusted halibut served with roasted vegetables.
One last category of entrees is a selection of baked pasta dishes. Baked rigatoni comes in its most basic and comforting format with ricotta cheese and marinara sauce with the option to add protein via sausage. Chicken lasagna layers sheets of pasta with pulled poultry enlivened with spinach and mushrooms. All pasta entrees are served in rustic metal dishes which do a good job of retaining the oven’s heat. They also come with several slices of bread and can be augmented with Schreiner’s sausage for an extra charge.
For dessert, there’s an indulgent chocolate torte and tiramisu, as well as two or three flavors of gelato. The drinks come in the form of wine and draft beer, but no cocktails. Non-alcoholic options include bottled Mexican coke and San Pellegrino fruit sodas. The truncated street that is home to Oven+Vine provides for a quiet atmosphere despite the presence of Central Avenue just half a block away. With its focused menu and neighborly atmosphere, the restaurant confirms that an address on a cul-de-sac doesn’t have to lead to a dead-end meal.
14 W. Vernon Ave., Phoenix AZ 85003
Encanto / Central Station