Situated high on the plains of the Sonoran Desert and rimmed by majestic mountains, Tucson is gaining attention as one of the country’s cultural hot spots.
By Alli Tong
Combining the essence of the Wild West with natural beauty, it’s easy to see why Tucson was once the desert playground for anyone who was anyone. Back in the days of old Hollywood, celebrities—from John Wayne to Elizabeth Taylor—flocked to the area not only for sun and secrecy but also to film. In fact, Old Tucson Studios, just outside of town, has served as the backdrop for a plethora of famous Western flicks, including “Rio Bravo” (1959), starring Dean Martin and John Wayne, and “The Quick and the Dead” (1995), starring Sharon Stone and Russell Crowe, until a fire ravaged the space in 1995. Since then, film production has rapidly declined but that hasn’t stopped people from visiting one of the country’s most historic cities, which also boasts as many as 350 days of sunshine per year, making it a popular vacation spot during the fall and winter months.
While the city known as the “Old Pueblo” seems to be the forgotten stepchild to Phoenix and Scottsdale, it’s recently been witnessing a kind of desert renaissance. Its once sleepy downtown, which was plagued by the economic downturn, has been rebuilding a vibrant dining scene and nightlife over the past few years—it’s actually been referred to as “Arizona’s Austin” in more recent times. And why shouldn’t it be? In addition to its diverse outdoor offerings such as hiking and rock climbing, the city core has been transforming, reeling in dozens of new eateries over the past few years, according to Chianne Hewer, public affairs and communications manager at the Arizona Restaurant Association. It also has gained a reputable music scene.
Well, a tumbleweed rolling across the vast desert plains no more; let us introduce you to the new Tucson.
Largely due to the young population of the University of Arizona, it’s no wonder that Tucson’s music landscape has exploded over the past few years, brewing its own strong, independent culture that may, indeed, rival Austin, Texas, one day.
Reflecting the diverse culture of Tucson—located about 60 miles north of the Mexican border—there are many genres of music to indulge in, whether it’s rock ’n’ roll, jazz, mariachi, flamenco or classical.
The city is also home to many notable musicians; the most famous is Grammy Award winner and 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Linda Ronstadt, who was born and grew up in Tucson before moving to San Francisco.
But the landlocked city also has played host to a collection of first-rate bands and musicians who come to the desert town to play at some of its most iconic venues, like The Rialto Theatre, which was built in the early 1900s and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places; Club Congress, which is dubbed one of the best rock clubs in the U.S.; or Fox Tucson Theatre, which opened in 1930 and features a variety of performing talent, ranging from theater and dance shows, stand-up comedy and classic films to jazz, contemporary pop, world music and rock acts.
A few of the music greats that have performed at venues in the city include The Rolling Stones, ZZ Top, Tina Turner and Stevie Wonder, as well as popular bands today such as Imagine Dragons, to name a few. “Tucson is one of the oldest cities in the United States, so there’s a long history in music and communication arts here,” says George Howard, founder of the Tucson Musicians Museum, which helps to develop music culture in the city. “I really see it expanding because of the qualified musicians … that reside here.”
And over the years, more venues, including restaurants, have been hosting musical talent to accommodate the different tastes. George, who also plays in an R&B band called The George Howard Band and has a regular gig at the lounge at Loews Ventana Canyon, recommends a few hot spots to get a taste of Tucson’s music scene, including the Boondocks Lounge, which presents blues; Chicago Bar, which features reggae, rock, jazz and blues; and Casa Vicente, which hosts flamenco dancing and music. The Flycatcher, a live music venue on Sixth Street, offers weekly shows of mostly indie bands and is a popular gathering place for the university crowd. And let’s not forget about the country music fans: Tucson’s The Maverick hosts live music every weekend.
Foodies looking to get a taste of Tucson need look no further than downtown, which is home to an array of fine-dining restaurants, cafes, bars and dessert shops. In fact, the city of Tucson has made it that much easier for visitors and locals alike to get access to this culinary destination via its new streetcar service, which debuted in July. The trolley system, called Sun Link, runs nearly every 10 to 20 minutes during the week and connects riders to major points of interest—including downtown and the University of Arizona—along a 4-mile route.
With hundreds of eateries in Tucson, it can be difficult to narrow down where to go for that next meal, but with everything from Southwestern and Caribbean cuisine to farm-to-table fare, you’re sure to find something that suits your taste buds.
To start your day, the recently opened Prep & Pastry is the perfect spot for breakfast or lunch. Boasting a farm-to-table concept, everything is made from scratch, including all of its freshly baked goods, which feature “dossants” (a doughnut-and-croissant hybrid—a must-try is the maple-bacon or chocolate chip cookie dough), scones and more. For a light lunch option, the salmon with whipped carrot mash and succotash is mouthwatering to the last bite.
For a fine-dining option, it’s hard not to argue that the Flying V Bar & Grill at Loews Ventana Canyon is one of the best around. The restaurant is nestled on the hotel’s scenic property at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains, so it’s a great place to escape for the evening. Here, Chef de Cuisine Brandon Cathey puts a twist on modern American dishes, incorporating local ingredients like prickly pear cactus.
An absolute must-try is its tableside guacamole, which was rated the No. 2 best guacamole in America earlier this year by The Huffington Post. Not your average guac, this special mixture incorporates a few special ingredients—like kumquats and tequila—that add a little something extra. However, the experience is part of it, too—a “guacamoliere,” Flying V’s guacamole expert, hand-mixes all the ingredients tableside so you can customize the spiciness or other ingredients to your liking. There’s also the juicy pork scaloppini with oven-roasted apples for a hearty entree. To wash it all down, try a house margarita—the jalapeno prickly pear version, made with El Jimador reposado tequila, is a favorite.
In downtown Tucson, however, the new-to-the-scene Saint House Island Bistro & Rum Bar (opened in summer 2013) features a taste of the Caribbean with a Mexican flair. The chicken skewers with house-made jerk sauce alongside the taro chips and house-made banana-ketchup dip are perfect options to nibble on during happy hour, which runs daily until 6 p.m.
“The Tucson dining scene is evolving and adapting to cravings that the current demographic and generation seeks,” Chianne says. “… More specifically, Tucson now has some celebrity chefs in … [its] kitchens, which was hard to find several years ago.”
OUT ON THE TOWN
For a late nightcap, Tucson’s Congress Street seems to be the place to be on a Friday or Saturday night. From tried-and-true watering holes to contemporary wine bars, it’ll be hard not to be out until the wee hours of the night.
Tucson is no slacker when it comes to great beer. It’s home to several local breweries, including Nimbus and Thunder Canyon, which have been around for years (and the more recent Dragoon) and earned high marks from beer experts.
Wine lovers need not fret, though—Tucson has options for them, too. The Unplugged Wine Bar, opened in late 2013, features more than 50 organic and natural wines, including rare imports from Germany, Spain and France. Stop by on Thursdays for a tasting flight for only $12 and relax to live jazz music.
And a visit to one of Tucson’s oldest, and most storied, establishments is also a must. A staple since the early 1900s, Hotel Congress has evolved into an entertainment hub and is home to some of the country’s best bars, as touted by Esquire Magazine. In fact, one of the hotel’s major claims to fame is that it’s the locale where infamous gangster John Dillinger was captured in 1934. Relive history with the hotel bar’s Dillinger Sidecar #2, made with cognac, Cointreau and lemon.
Tucson’s resurgence has been long awaited and much deserved. With its rough-and-tough cowboy facade and burgeoning modern-day culture—and stunning landscapes, to boot—we’re happy to see new life in this old town.