The intersection of Central Avenue and Camelback Road is an unusual crossroads. The immediate area is undermined by a big vacant lot on the southwest corner and the congestion-causing Dutch Bros. drive-thru on the northwest. Across the street, it’s a little better an an office building is converted to residential and new merchants fill the few remaining spaces at the recently renovated Uptown Plaza. Still, some of Uptown’s most attractive elements are found not right where Central and Camelback meet, but instead a few blocks in each direction.
The formula behind Windsor, one of those destinations found just three blocks north of the Central / Camelback light rail station, is one that has been seen several times before in the vicinity: Take an interesting but underutilized mid-century building, renovate it and add a patio, and turn it into a popular bar and restaurant. The result is a place that looks and feels like a neighborhood restaurant, even if many of the clientele come from well beyond the immediate confines of the Windsor Square historic district for which the restaurant is named.
Windsor occupies a storefront facing Central Avenue and its buffered bike lanes, but the real action is in the back on a shaded, mist-cooled patio that is comfortable even in summer heat. That’s also where bike racks are found for anyone using two-wheeled transport to reach the restaurant. During nice weather, customers and staff flow easily between the patio and the darker, louder dining area inside the restaurant. A square bar fashioned from dark wood sits next to the host station and serves as the center of activity and traffic within the dining room.
Windsor has been marketed as serving “casual and familiar bar food with an upscale twist.” That means appetizers like cheddar fondue in which warm pretzel pieces are served with sliced apples and sausage, along with a melted cheese sauce for dipping. Paired with a dark beer on a winter night, it’s hearty and warming. For a more summery taste, there’s ahi tuna poke and several entree-sized salads. Windsor’s version of the nearly ubiquitous kale Caesar blends a little romaine with a whole lot of kale, chunky croutons, and a relatively light dressing.
Heftier salad choices include an interpretation of the Middle Eastern fattoush with grilled pita, feta cheese, red onions, sliced cucumbers, and a few flourishes from radishes and butter beans. Grains get special attention via a combination of quinoa, kamut, and barley with roasted vegetables and just a bit of goat cheese. Any of the salads can be paired in a half size with a cup of the day’s soup. Recent choices, available by the cup or bowl, have included a curry coconut carrot with flavors that blend as well as the alliterative words in the soup’s name.
Simple foods like hamburgers are reinterpreted as updated classics served on soft, pliant brioche buns. Choose to have a burger “Windsor style” to elevate the flavor with sharp cheddar, caramelized onions, and garlic aioli. The classic style keeps the cheese but substitutes lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickle. A pastrami Reuben served on a clever marble rye bun is full of thick cuts of lean seasoned meat with a texture almost like brisket or pot roast. It beef melds nicely with the accompanying sauerkraut, emmentaler cheese, and Russian dressing.
Sandwiches branch out into fare based on fish and poultry. The halibut banh mi, despite being perhaps less authentic and more expensive than the Vietnamese sandwiches served just a mile or two west along Camelback Road, works its own magic with a generous slab of fish instead of more familiar pork fillings and via the substantial heat added by spicy sambal mayonnaise. The crab cake BLT relies on minced bits of bacon judiciously mixed into three small crab cakes. The result is a smoky flavor that does not overpower the distinct taste of the crab meat.
A Brown Bag chicken sandwich lands somewhere halfway between pulled barbecue and a deli salad on a bun. As unusual as that might sound, it works, largely due to sun-dried tomatoes enlivening the flavor while watercress and avocado provide contrasting crisp and smooth textures. A Berkeley veggie burger is well seasoned, although a bit dry. Besides the obvious fries, some of the other side dish options for any sandwich include cheesy “church potatoes,” creamy mac-and-cheese, savoy cabbage slaw, sweet potato fries, and a daily vegetable.
Entrees are relatively few, but the picnic kebobs provide four skewers, one each of chicken, shrimp, pork, and vegetables, with two dipping sauces and abundant pita bread. Depending on the day of the week, there may be specials such as fried chicken or fish-and-chips with a choice of side. A market fish is offered every day. A short walk at the end of the meal is a necessity for anyone wanting dessert because there’s none on the Windsor’s menu. Instead, stroll next door to Churn for ice cream and enjoy the wall of old cassettes that connects the two establishments.
The bar pours draft beer, serves wine, and mixes original cocktails identified only by cryptic numbers. Blackberry lemonade is the best choice for something refreshing without alcohol. The intersection at the heart of Uptown still looks for inspired projects to the make it the vibrant urban crossroads it should be, but three blocks north of Central and Camelback, adaptive reuse of an old building and creative updating of classic menu items have worked together to create a restaurant that feels modern yet at home in the historic neighborhood it is named for.
5223 N. Central Ave., Phoenix AZ 85012