There comes a time in every hotel’s life when it’s time for renovations. In downtown Phoenix, the Hyatt Regency has been a mainstay of the city’s convention business since its opening in the 1970s. Its construction was part of a wave of urban renewal also responsible for Symphony Hall and the original convention center buildings. With the convention center much larger now and designs from over four decades ago looking dated, the Hyatt’s latest round of improvements are welcome, and the hotel’s ground-floor restaurant and bar has been one of the visible priorities.
Networks, which served middling bar food for many years, is gone now. The replacement is Barrel and Bushel, a new restaurant brand first used at the Hyatt Regency in Tysons Corner, Virginia. In transplanting an approach that debuted in the Washington D.C. suburbs into the heart of Phoenix’s urban core, there has been an attempt to create a city feel by directly addressing the corner of Second Street and Adams, located a block for two from multiple light rail stations in downtown Phoenix. The extensive patio rivals the capacity of the interior seating.
Inside the hotel, the restaurant space flows seamlessly into the hotel’s renovated lobby. There is a dining room with a host station, but there’s also substantial seating in the bar area. Large community tables predominate, and boundaries between indoor, outdoor, bar, restaurant, and patio spaces seem largely fluid. The new look emphasizes natural, blond wood and glass. The bar-forward approach is reinforced by transparent cabinets housing numerous kegs full of craft beer and exposed overhead plumbing transporting the draft brews to the tap handles at the bar.
There is a single menu for lunch and dinner segmented into categories such as “share plates,” “salads,” “burgers,” “sides,” and “not between the bun.” The share plates function as appetizers with familiar favorites such pretzel bites with beer cheese and chicken wings with a spicy bourbon glaze. One standout is the pesto cauliflower. Just about every place is serving this once mundane cruciferous vegetable these days, but Barrel & Bushel’s version is impressive with its gentle char on the small florets and generous flavor from torn basil leaves in the bowl.
A bowl of soup seems more like a light entree than something to be shared. The restaurant’s Southwestern minestrone is a hearty bowl full of black beans, ditali pasta, corn, and tomato with a spice mix that evokes local flavors. The Arizona Cobb salad also has a local feel. The usual lettuce and bacon are augmented with Southwestern touches like pinto beans and hominy. In an unusual move, this dish omits the customary hard-boiled egg. When asked, the kitchen was unable to add one, even though hard-boiled eggs are sold in the hotel’s grab-and-go shop.
One especially appealing starter was the beer shrimp, six plump crustaceans gently poached in College Street’s Big Blue Van wheat beer with a little glass of the same on the side and toasted bread to soak up juice. Sadly, it has been removed from the menu. The deletion of one of the strongest appetizers on the menu is unfortunately a symptom of a bigger problem. Just a month after a grand opening enthusiastically promoted as “the biggest patio party downtown Phoenix has ever seen,” Barrel & Bushel has abruptly 86’d many of the kitchen’s best offerings.
That’s a shame because chef Chelsea Cummings and the team were producing genuinely clever and creative fare in the first few months of the restaurant’s operation. Among the sandwiches, the Bloody Mary Burger was an awe-inspiring tower of taste. The juicy patty not only had plenty of toppings within its brioche bun, but also a vertical skewer overlooking the burger with pieces of cheese, bacon, tomato, olives, and pepperoncini. According to one server, it took a long time for the kitchen to prepare. Maybe so, but it was an original entree worth the wait.
Another item now missing in action is the crab cake burger, a generous seafood patty with a big slice of green tomato and remoulade. It was a particularly appealing sandwich, especially when paired with a side like waffle fries or street corn. Among the “not between the bun” entrees, there has also been an unexplained abandonment of some of the most original and impressive items. Ribs and waffles was an inventive take on the trendy combination of chicken and waffles, but with tender short rib meat instead of poultry. It has also vanished after a short time.
With all the pruning that has occured, the menu now focuses on more predictable items such as a pub burger and a chicken caprese sandwich. They’re fine, but they’re not terribly interesting compared to what has been lost. Fortunately, one favorite from the dessert menu is still around after the cull. Strawberry shortcake might not sound exciting at first, but Barrel & Bushel produces its own interpretation of this classic treat with restrained sweetness, a lighter than expected texture due to the use of olive oil, and a bit of tang from a balsamic drizzle
With its attractive atmosphere and appealing selection of cocktails and craft beer, Barrel & Bushel is hard to dislike. With its original menu, it was easy to adore. The unexplained retreat on the food side therefore seems like a frustrating case of one step forward, two steps back. If Barrel & Bushel wants to cater to a captive audience of hotel guests and convention attendees, it will do just fine. If the restaurant wants to be a destination worth coming downtown for, as it was in the first few months of its life, it will need to find a way to restore its sense of adventure.
March 9, 2020 Update: Since the publication of this review, Barrel and Bushel has restored the beer shrimp to its menu. A few new menu items have also been added to replace some of those that were discontinued shortly after the grand opening.
122 N. 2nd St., Phoenix AZ 85004