It’s fashionable for restaurants to call themselves “bistros,” “cafes,” or “gastropubs,” even if they bear little resemblance to the traditional meanings of those words. Less trendy but perhaps just as important, a city benefits from having its share of taverns — straightforward, unpretentious establishments for food and drink, only subtly differentiated from the concept of a pub. In the core of Downtown Phoenix, one new restaurant plays the name game not only by identifying itself as “Deli Tavern,” but also retaining the prior tenant’s “Downtown Deli” sign on the facade.
Sound confusing? A little bit of history might help: For decades, a traditional deli with pastrami, brisket, and cafeteria-style service operated at the site under the “Downtown Deli” name, complete with a distinctive arc-shaped sign over a checkered background above the front door. The deli closed in 2015, one of many lost to rising rents, chain competition, and changing tastes. The new establishment, which does not serve deli food, opted to keep the iconic sign, initially calling itself “Downtown Deli Tavern” and then shortening the name to the current “Deli Tavern.”
Even as the sign outside has remained, the interior has been completely refurbished. The long, narrow space, formerly broken into a separate rooms in the deli, has been combined into a single shoebox-style dining room with dark wood furnishings. The weathered look is accentuated by flamingo wallpaper and caricature drawings of local celebrities. A few tables for outdoor dining sit outside on Central, although the shade is limited due to the proximity of the overhead wires that supply power to the trains running right in front of the restaurant.
There’s a host station for customers sitting at the tables and a long bar perfect for dining alone. The menu bears little resemblance to that of a traditional deli, but would be right at home in a typical tavern. Pretzel bites with a melted cheddar cheese sauce are a supple and shareable starter under the heading of “snacks,” a category that also includes a huge bowl of turkey noodle soup. The soup is no snack. It’s a hearty meal-in-a-bowl. The small pipe-sized noodles play well with chunks of poultry and vegetables, although the broth could stand to be less salty.
The category labeled “Originals” is really a section devoted to entrees. The meatloaf is a standout interpretation of a classic with an accompaniment of root vegetables and a bourbon sauce. The tavern steak and potatoes is a small sirloin steak served sliced with a green bean and mushroom casserole and crisp onion strings. For a $15 steak, it’s remarkably tender and flavorful. Both these hearty entrees are served with a generous heap of hash browns, a side item also available as an appetizer “smothered” with cheese, bacon, onions, and jalapenos.
Another original / entree is the green chili mac, a generous bowl of pipette pasta with mild green chilies, fontina cheese sauce, and a crunchy topping of panko bread crumbs. Other choices bring the concept of breakfast to the afternoon and evening. One is French Fried Chicken, a play on words and the concept of chicken and waffles. In this case, the fried poultry is served with French toast and bacon. Other all-day-breakfast items include a breakfast burrito full of eggs, bacon, cheddar, hash browns, and grilled peppers, as well as an omelette with hash.
Closest to classic deli fare are the various sandwiches, although most are still more in the comfort food tavern vein. The Chicken-and-Goat is grilled poultry with honey goat cheese, sundried tomatoes, pickled red onions, and arugula on ciabatta. The Sonoran cheesesteak is made with thick, sliced roast beef rather than the more typical thin pieces or ribeye, making this item a knife-and-fork sandwich. All the sandwiches come with house-made chips by default, or the option to upgrade to skin-on steak fries, hash browns, or a small salad for an added charge.
Lighter fare includes four salads such as sliced turkey and apple on top of mixed greens and Elaine’s Big Salad, a nod to the bowl of greens that was the focus of an entire “Seinfeld” episode about a trivial obsession with misplaced credit for a good deed. Desserts include a satisfying and straightforward slice of apple pie a la mode; a small, chocolate, cream cheese-filled “Jimmy Cake” resembling a moon pie; and a decadent treat of French toast accessorized with sauteed bananas, bacon, pecans, and vanilla ice cream.
Since a tavern, like a pub, is as much about drinking as it is about eating, there’s now a full bar, something the old deli at the site never had — and never needed — due to its focus on the downtown lunch trade. With the city center now more lively after dark and with a larger residential population within walking distance, Deli Tavern’s beverage menu focuses on value-priced cocktails under $10, wine served by the bottle or in six or nine-ounce pours, and craft beer such as Four Peaks golden lager on tap with more selections in bottles and cans.
The vintage Downtown Deli sign outside the entrance, while confusing for some at first, now seems to have become just another part of the landscape with plenty of customers passing under it knowing the actual tavern food and atmosphere that wait beyond the entrance. Downtown Phoenix, once the domain of lunch-oriented establishments that were open only during daylight hours and only on weekdays, now has more evening and weekend options than in recent memory. That includes pubs, breweries, cocktail parlors, and now, a Deli Tavern.
130 N Central Ave. #100, Phoenix AZ 85004
Van Buren / First Avenue or Jefferson / First Avenue stations (westbound)
Van Buren / Central or Washington / Central stations (eastbound)