Although restaurants that cater to new trends are always popping up in Tucson, many diners still crave traditional Italian, Mexican or French cuisine. Luckily, whatever the dining preferences, Tucson restaurants satisfy myriad tastes.
After travels to Paris or Montreal, locals can come home to enjoy paté or chateau briand with bearnaise sauce at Le Rendez-vous. The classic French restaurant was established in 1981, and its owner/chef Jean-Claude Berger was born in France. “We smoke our own mesquite salmon. Very little is store-bought,” says Gordon Berger, the owner’s son and manager of Le Rendez-vous.
“Our Grand Marnier soufflés are made to order. We feature a romantic setting with tableside flambées” that are quite dramatic, says Gordon, 32, who lived in France studying its cuisine for three years, and he sometimes does the cooking at Le Rendez-vous. “I grew up working in the restaurant, wearing every hat,” he says.
Tucson’s restaurants go beyond varied cuisines; they also contribute to our city’s history of diversity. “I’ve been part of Tucson for over 35 years,” says Joe Abi-Ad, owner of the Falafel King. “With the economy still bad we’re continuing our lunch and dinner values for the Tucson community.”
Abi-Ad, who hails from Lebanon, offers “good bargains” of falafel in pita bread, and chicken or beef shawarma. Although the fare at Falafel King may be considered fast food since it’s prepared quickly, all dishes are “homemade and made fresh with the finest Mediterranean ingredients,” says Abi-Ad.
Italian cuisine is ever-popular in Tucson, “and now that the weather is getting cooler people are looking for pastas, which are around 75 percent made in-house,” at Tavolino Ristorante Italiano, says Larissa Capizzano, assistant manager.
“Our lasagna is the best I’ve ever had and that includes my mom’s,” she told the AJP, adding that she hopes her mother doesn’t get mad at her. “I come from a very Italian family.”
Tavolino has a wood-burning rotisserie fired by mesquite, notes Capizzano. “We’ll have a new fall menu next month,” she says, which will bring back the most popular specials of previous seasons. Tavolino also boasts a happy hour with all drinks and appetizers priced under $8.
Mexican food is a staple in Tucson, and La Salsa Fresh Mexican Grill owner Ron Yaeli notes that the locally owned La Salsa restaurants are celebrating their 16th birthday this year. “We’re featuring dinner for two with steak or chicken fajitas and two beers or fountain drinks for $16,” Margie Fenton, La Salsa’s marketing coordinator — and Yaeli’s mother-in-law — told the AJP.
“We’re fast casual, but our food is made to order. I’m proud that my family has offered this good food in Tucson for 16 years,” she says. La Salsa’s success is also about customer and staff loyalty. “I’ve know some of the people who work for us since they were kids,” notes Fenton.
The 52 members of Tucson Originals independently owned and operated restaurants also strive to promote loyalty among Tucson diners. “We were the first city in the nation to come up with this concept of grouping local restaurants” for everyone’s benefit, says Colette Landeen, executive director of the Tucson Originals. “We started out with just a handful [of restaurants] in 1998. We now run the full gamut from casual dining to white tablecloth.”
The organization started out as a “financial buying group creating a level playing field with the chains,” explains Landeen. “It’s become more altruistic, giving back to the community.”
One way Tucson Originals contributes to the community is through the annual Tucson Culinary Festival, which will take place Oct. 27-30 (tucsonculinaryfestival.com). The organization provides volunteers for three nights of eating events, and “a major portion of the ticket sales,” says Landeen, will benefit New Beginnings for Women and Children, research at the Diamond Children’s Medical Center and Arizona’s Childrens Association.
Todd Martin, co-owner of the Tucson Tamale Company, with his wife, Sherry, recently joined the board of Tucson Originals. Part of the bigger picture of belonging to Tucson Originals, says Martin, “is supporting local businesses. Even when the economy is booming, around 70 percent of the money stays in the community. It helps all of us. I really believe in that.”
Promoting Tucson’s beauty also contributes to the success of local restaurants. At Loews Ventana Canyon’s Flying V Bar & Grill, the motto is about enjoying Tucson’s “fresh mountain air and delicious Southwestern cuisine.”
On the site of the former Flying V Dude Ranch, the Flying V grill touts its tableside guacamole, beef tenderloin, seared salmon and seasonal vegetarian dishes. Whether sitting on the grill’s patio or indoors, diners can partake of the nightly happy hour.
Shlomo & Vito’s New York Delicatessen hopes “to bring back the mentality of the family dinner” this fall, says co-owner Matt McKinnon. Shlomo & Vito’s will offer more dishes for diners to share, such as “an antipasto platter for the table. We’re going to have a more extensive appetizer menu, including jumbo fried ravioli and jumbo fried pickles.”
Although the fried pickles are a Southern favorite that McKinnon and co-owner Dean Greenberg fell in love with in New York City, of all places, they’re focusing on Jewish and Italian food people remember growing up with, or “comfort food. The recipes we use are almost exclusively from Dean’s family,” says McKinnon. “We’re sticking with the best ingredients. We use Boar’s Head meats, which aren’t cheap. We’re not substituting cheaper products” because of the economy; “that’s not who we are.”