The boundaries between coffee houses, bars, and restaurants have never been rigid. Many places that specialize in coffee and espresso offer at least a few sandwiches or breakfast items. A few serve wine and beer. Starbucks tried a few years ago to cross the border into evening alcohol and dinner service only to retreat back to its classic model after a short time. While the massive chain may have failed in its attempt to become a bar and restaurant, one local coffee house, Lux Central, has successfully mixed elements of all three identities for nearly a decade.
Lux started in the 2000s as a coffee house with a living room feel. In 2011, however, it seized upon an opportunity to move into a bigger space next door, expanding its space and its menu at the same time. The current site is just across from the Campbell / Central light rail station and next door to Pane Bianco. In fact, Lux’s 2011 move out of the same building as Pane Bianco paved the way for that restaurant’s expansion into its current full-service model. Now Pane Bianco and Lux Central are close neighbors, but each has its own building and atmosphere.
With a name like Lux Central, it would be logical to ask if there are other Luxes out there. Despite rumors of a second Lux that would open in downtown Phoenix, that particular development has not yet occurred. Instead, there is now a second Lux, but it’s 160 miles to the north in Flagstaff. In Phoenix, where Uptown meets Midtown, Lux remains a hipster hub, yet it can be just as welcoming to families with children as it can be to adults modeling the latest in noise-cancelling bluetooth headphones while pecking away in solitude at their laptops.
The modest mid-century building is virtually unmarked from the outside. A small sign partially displays the place’s name, but it’s overshadowed by a much larger billboard next to it. In fact, the billboard is the best way to spot the cafe. Look for it just south of the rail platform, follow it to the building, and then enter through the back. Inside, Lux is broken into more-or-less four rooms that flow into one another. Customers pass through the first and busiest of these chambers and then line up at the counter to order what they want while perusing the day’s pastry selection.
The pastry varies with new creations from the kitchen being unveiled throughout the day. Recent favorites have included a lemon tea cake and corn muffins with berries. The pastry is dispensed right at the counter, as are all of the coffee drinks and teas. More substantial orders for breakfast, lunch, or dinner entrees are prepared in an attached open kitchen. The customer’s name is called when the food is done, but since there’s no public address system, it’s not uncommon for staff to walk through the two back rooms “auctioning” the food.
When Lux occupied its current space, it focused on going beyond the usual coffee, pastry, and sandwiches to establish a menu that included full meals at all times of the day. In the morning, that includes hearty items like biscuits and gravy, made either with sausage or spicy chorizo, or a big bowl of oatmeal with toasted pecans and berries. Eggs are served with toast, hash, bacon, or even New York strip steak. A unique item on the menu is the Dutch pancake, a large disc much like a popover with berries and whipped cream or a savory vegetable combination.
The Dutch pancake and egg dishes carry over to the lunch menu, but additional options emerge at midday. A bacon cheeseburger and a grilled chicken sandwich are perennial options on the ever-changing menu. Grilled cheese can be paired with Lux’s tart tomato soup for a classic combination, and a crock of molten mac-and-cheese can be enriched with pesto, fontina, bacon, or chicken. Two hearty salads offer meatless meal options with Mediterranean influence. Spinach and strawberries are featured in one, with arugula and chickpeas in the other.
In the evening, Lux continues most of the lunch menu but adds two substantial entrees. A chicken parmesan risotto strikes the right balance between a creamy texture and slightly firm rice grains and is accentuated with a generous bed of arugula and slices of pickled peppers. Most surprising of all for a coffee house, Lux serves a strip steak adorned with ground pepper over a bed of mashed potatoes with a side of broccoli. It’s a simple but satisfying meal that goes far beyond standard espresso joint menus, which seldom include steak dinners.
While it’s become increasingly common for coffee houses to offer some beer and wine, Lux goes a step beyond with a full bar, both in the sense of a distinct counter staffed by bartenders and a full spectrum of spirits. A printed menu offers ten original cocktails such as Rum in the Blood, a drink strongly flavored with blood orange and ginger. Wines are listed on a chalkboard, and the Austin Hope cabernet sauvignon pairs well with the steak. There is no room for tap handles at the bar, but a broad spectrum of craft beer is available in bottles and cans.
The bar, by the way, is the one place inside Lux where it’s possible to have a full-service experience. Otherwise, the service model still feels more like a coffee house, even if the menu has long since outgrown Lux’s origins. With many coffee places still figuring out what changes they should make to attract evening business, Lux Central seems to have it already figured out. It’s a unique approach that probably can’t be replicated on every corner, but at Central and Campbell, a coffee house has become a workable destination for three meals a day.
4402 N. Central Ave., Phoenix AZ 85012