Dining Out | Local

Tucson restaurateurs highlight joys of community in busy winter season

A handful of Tucson’s restaurateurs are working through the holidays, but instead of dreading their blistering schedule they’re welcoming in the busy season. Filling your plates and bowls warms their souls.

Jason McCarty, a managing partner at Eclectic Cafe, says he sees the 37-year-old eatery as an unofficial anchor of Tucson’s eastside. Moving forward, McCarty hopes Eclectic stays vibrant and continues to grow without losing its “family feel.”

Eclectic has served three generations of regular customers, says McCarty. Their dedicated staff play an integral role at the restaurant, he says, and watching some of their servers get hired at age 17, then work their way through college has been an honor. “And the customers love hearing about their progress.”

“After the consistency of the food, that’s what makes our place different — the relationships the customers have with the staff,” says McCarty.

Tucson’s seasonal residents will make Eclectic their first stop when they return here for the winter, popping in to make sure the eatery didn’t fall apart, says McCarty with a laugh.

“We love our regular customers, we love to see new customers,” says McCarty. “We love this time of year.”

Although Eclectic will be closed on Thanksgiving Day, they will take special orders for holiday meals for pick-up until about a week prior. 

Tavolino Ristorante Italiano is always on the front line of culinary and beverage trends, says chef Massimo Tenino. They just released a new cocktail menu created by Tavolino’s sommelier, Jon Herrera, featuring spirits that incorporate seasonal and Italian ingredients.

At Tavolino, the staff works tirelessly to develop a warm relationship with its regular and first-time customers, he says.

“We look forward, every winter season, to seeing our friends return to our bustling, vibrant restaurant where we work to ensure that they have the best experience every time they visit,” Tenino says. “And if they’re celebrating a special occasion, we go the extra mile to make it memorable for everyone.”

Tavolino’s Lasagna al Forno is their most popular dish, says Tenino, adding “we’ve heard from guests who travel the world that they think ours is the best they have had anywhere.”

Don’t forget their award-winning wines, he adds, which include Pietro Rinaldi wines, harvested by Tenino’s brother, Paolo.

Tavolino’s patio is now climate-controlled, so patrons can enjoy outdoor dining year-round.

Nicole and Maurice Cochard, owners of Café Francais, are on a first-name basis with their clientele. Their regulars often pop into the kitchen after a meal, firing compliments Maurice’s way, says Nicole Cochard.

The couple moved to the United States from Grenoble, France, in 1968, when Maurice was hired as head chef at a four star French restaurant in Denver. This is where he began to cater to Jewish customers, who appreciate his cooking and have been his most loyal clientele since moving stateside, says Cochard. They came to Tucson in 2012 and opened Café Francais.   

Cochard describes Maurice as “an old-fashioned chef,” who makes everything from scratch, takes his time in the kitchen and feeds off his customers’ praise.

Until Nov. 19, customers can special order take-home Thanksgiving Day meals — an annual tradition that was born from a handful of people asking Maurice to prepare their holiday fare.

Café Francais is now open for dinner on Friday and Saturday from 5:30-8 p.m.

Business is picking up at Mama’s Famous Pizza & Heros, says Liz Biocca, special events coordinator, since people are getting burnt out on cooking. The day before and after Thanksgiving Day are traditionally very busy, she says, because people are hosting family from out-of-town and Mama’s family size pie, measuring 2 feet across, feeds up to 10 people.

“What kind of car are you driving?” is the stock question when people order the 24-inch pie, says Biocca, with a laugh. We want to make sure you have enough room, she explains to customers. 

Biocca says the clientele at Mama’s are a festive group.

“People are happy when they come into Mama’s … it’s nice to have that gathering place where everybody’s having a good time and everybody’s happy — even when people are exhausted,” she says. “It’s a wonderful family gathering place that we have at each of our restaurants.”

Mama’s is very particular about their ingredients, the cheese is the best quality available and vegetables are shipped on a daily basis to ensure a fresh and flavorful meal, she says. “Everything’s made with a lot of heart.”

El Cisne Restaurant, located on the northeast corner of Swan Road and Sunrise Drive, is a family-owned eatery that offers authentic cuisine from three regions in Mexico. And the menu sometimes ranges farther afield — the Foothills mainstay hosted “Uruguay Night” on July 15 as part of its South American Summer Series.

El Cisne’s general manager, George Ferranti, recently was selected as the restaurant committee chair for the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Fabian Llinas, assistant manager at HiFalutin Rapid Fire Western Grill, says the jovial atmosphere during the holiday season makes his regular patrons feel more like family.

“It doesn’t seem to me that it’s a workday,” says Llinas, describing the overall spirit on Thanksgiving Day. “It’s just fun to serve [customers] and make them happy.” 

HiFalutin will be open on Thanksgiving for the third year in a row,  offering guests a three-course holiday meal with a variety of choices for a flat rate.

HiFalutin also will introduce a new brunch menu shortly after the Thanksgiving holiday. They will be open on Christmas Eve this year, but their Christmas Day hours have yet to be determined.

Ginza Sushi offers a variety of Asian fare, some with a Mexican-inspired twist, reflecting the marriage of cultures of owners Diana and Jun Arai. The menu includes miso soup, sashimi, nigiri, sushi rolls and a full tempura bar, some with a Mexican-inspired twist. Ginza’s Izakaya-style dining option features small plates — think of a Japanese take on a tapas bar.

On Monday, Dec. 4, Pastiche Modern Eatery will host its first cocktail pairing dinner, says manager Chris Kroebig. Everyone does a wine or beer pairing event, Kroebig explains, but Pastiche decided to mix it up and show off their liquor selection, which includes 250 types of whiskey. The event will kick off at 6 p.m., cost $60 per person and $110 for couples and reservations are required. Many of the libations will feature products from locally owned distilleries.

Kroebig says as one of the founding partners of the Tucson Originals Restaurants, Pastiche strives to build up independent dining entrepreneurship and local farmers in every way possible.

During the bustling holiday season, their clientele is always very thankful that Pastiche is open, he says. “People definitely appreciate it, and we get a little flutter in our hearts when we hear it.”

It’s a family oriented atmosphere at Pastiche, says Kroebig, explaining many regular customers have invited staff members to weddings and birthday parties, because of the relationships that are built at the local eatery.

The reverse is also true.

“I’ve had people here that I don’t know other than at the restaurant invited to my mother’s birthday party last year,” he says. “And it feels pretty good.”

Claire Johnson, owner of Claire’s Cafe & Art Gallery, says as the Jewish community continues to grow in Catalina, the demand for ethnic Jewish cuisine is also on the rise. Menu items like potato latkes, cheese blintzes, and chopped chicken livers during the holiday season are becoming increasingly popular, she says.

Claire’s also caters to folks with dietary restrictions, whether guests are counting calories or simply living gluten-free, says Johnson.

Before any new dishes are added to the menu at Claire’s, Johnson says she offers it as a special item. If the dish becomes popular it stays, if not she moves on, making their menu options responsive and fluid, she says.

“After 31 years I don’t want to get locked into anything,” says Johnson.

Although Harvest Oro Valley and Harvest on River will be closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, they’ll be very busy leading up to the New Year, says co-owner Reza Shapouri.

When Shapouri and his wife, Lisa, took over Harvest Oro Valley in 2011, they wanted to make a few conceptual changes. They aimed to create a comfortable setting for customers, offering delicious fare for an affordable price. Their core concept is “from scratch cooking,” making everything in-house in order to harness the best flavors, he says.

Shapouri believes the “neighborhood concept” is the way to go and chain restaurants are losing their dominance in the market. By design, nationally owned restaurants aim for consistency, but with that comes a lack of freshness and flavor, he says.

“You can’t have all of those preservatives in the food and make it taste good — it just can’t be done,” he says. “In that process the taste just walks out the door.”

Harvest’s new seasonal menu will be introduced within the next three weeks. A few vegetarian dishes will be added as well as a vegan enchilada plate, which will be wrapped in a cauliflower tortilla.

Susan Fulton of Gourmet Girls Gluten Free Bakery/Bistro says they’re constantly introducing new dishes and desserts, which include three new cupcakes: pear and fig, churro and caramel apple. As the holidays approach, Gourmet Girls will be fully stocked with pumpkin and apple pies, and their gluten-free Christmas cookies beginning in December.

“The holidays are kind of a stressful time for a lot of people anyway,” says Fulton. “When you have dietary restrictions it really adds to the stress. So we are here to take that away for everybody; we’re here to make it easy.”

Being able to delight in traditional Thanksgiving fare that’s made for people with food allergies can transform the holidays for their patrons, says Fulton.

“Sometimes they cry — with joy,” she says, with a laugh. “It just changes everything, to not have to be so worried all the time and to be able to enjoy things that other people are enjoying.”

For Thanksgiving and Christmas, Gourmet Girls will sell everything, minus the turkey, from stuffing to sweet potatoes. “Basically you can come in and get everything you need, if you don’t want to make it yourself.” Special orders will be taken until Sunday, Nov. 19.

“It’s really gratifying to fill the niche market for people with dietary restrictions because we can change their world for them … food’s important to people, and it’s the best work we’ve ever done,” she says.

La Hacienda Restaurant Tucson recently hired Executive Chef Luis Oscar Cepeda, who is innovating new menu items and fresh ideas on a regular basis, says General Manager Lorena Sahagun.

“We have recently expanded our catering services to include not only Mexican food, but also a fusion of flavors from Spain and Cuba to customize our customers’ wants and needs,” says Sahagun. “We are also doing private parties at our restaurant to accommodate up to 100 people, which includes a lovely patio area.”

As the holidays approach, they are looking forward to seeing familiar faces, she says, and La Hacienda is fortunate to have year-round regulars who frequent their North Swan location. “And our Oro Valley location is booming with Tucson’s winter visitors, who are also regular customers year after year.”

Thanks to their new executive chef, La Hacienda’s libation menu is flooded with tropical drinks including Cuban mojitos, says Sahagun. “We have an exclusive La Hacienda jalapeño margarita … [which] is the perfect blend of our homemade house mix with fresh jalapeño for an unprecedented taste.”

Richard Knott, executive chef/food and beverage manager at The Breeze Patio Bar & Grill at Radisson Suites Tucson, is looking to modernize some of their traditional American fare and introduce some new dishes by December. Knott says he’s aiming to prove that a hotel eatery can offer standout meals and stay busy year-round.

Knott also wants to work with local farmers. “I’m a big farm-to-table type of chef,” he says. “I think that’s the best way any chef could think … do your part to give back, and to help keep the community thriving.”

Seeing regular customers frequent The Breeze is important, says Knott; it shows the entire staff “that we’re doing something right.”

Knott recalls popping out of the kitchen as a young chef in order to watch customers enjoy a plate he was proud of. That satisfying feeling hasn’t dulled, he says.

Serving customers during the holidays, or for a special occasion, a chef can enhance the moment, he says. Being a chef is not about simply going through the motions, Knott explains, adding his mindset is clear: “Let’s do a phenomenal job, and let’s help make this occasion a lasting memory.”

The 16-hour shifts leading up to Thanksgiving Day are exhausting, but the payoff is undeniably rewarding, says Rebecca Wicker, co-owner of Dedicated: A gluten free bakery and coffee shop.

“When you do the math of how many people have something that we made on their Thanksgiving table, and that they can eat the dinner rolls because we exist — that’s the stuff that makes me cry, and that’s why we’re here,” she says. 

Wicker estimated that at least 4,000 people enjoyed Dedicated’s gluten-free Thanksgiving fare last year alone.

Wicker and her husband, Gordon, opened Dedicated after he was diagnosed with a severe food allergy. As a couple, they know what it’s like to go out for a bite, but find you can’t eat anything on the menu, she says.

“When you come at it from a position of knowing what it’s like to be on the other side of the counter, I think that really makes a difference,” she says.

Dedicated, formerly Got2b Gluten Free, first warmed its ovens in May 2014. They moved to a larger, more visible, location on Speedway Boulevard in May 2016.

At their new locale, Dedicated grew noticeably busier practically overnight, says Wicker. What’s more exciting, she explains, is their popularity comes from word-of-mouth advertising.

“[That] allows us to keep our prices down, and spend a little bit more money on things like charitable contributions and giving back to the community,” she says.

Dedicated recently sponsored the 7th annual Kids of Steele Mini Golf Event, a fundraiser that supports the University of Arizona Steele Children’s Research Center. This was the fourth year that Dedicated contributed to Empty Bowls: A Fundraiser to Fight Hunger and Feed Hope, an annual occasion that helps fund the Interfaith Community Services food banks.

Reilly Craft Pizza and Drink launched its fall menu on Nov. 9, featuring seasonal and local ingredients such as squash and winter greens, says chef Tyler Fenton. Guests will also notice changes to the appetizer, salad and pasta menus.

Reilly will offer some fun holiday specials which include a Hanukkah plate consisting of brisket and latkes, garnished with root vegetables, says Fenton.

They are fortunate to have a strong group of regular guests at Reilly as well as first timers, he says. Most of their regulars have a certain table, server or meal they prefer, which they always try to accommodate.

“It’s great to see familiar faces and establish relationships with our guests,” says Fenton. “We love that we become a staple in their lives and look forward to providing them with a memorable experience.”

Their brussels sprouts, which are flavored with house hot sauce, sherry vinegar, and pecan brittle crumbs, are a hot item, especially around Thanksgiving, he says, adding that people are constantly calling in to ask for the recipe.

The Tough Luck Club, Reilly’s basement-level speakeasy, has a new drink menu brewing, which will feature seasonally inspired cocktails and some warm options. Pub patrons can expect that change at the end of November.

Keanne Thompson, co-owner of The Tasteful Kitchen, says she and her sister, Sigret, always wanted to start a business together. In February 2011, they took the plunge, opening a gourmet plant-based eatery that caters to people living with dietary restrictions.

“We wanted to offer Tucson something original and different,” says Keanne Thompson.

Flash forward almost seven years, Thompson says business is booming as many of their regular and new customers simply became “sick and tired of being sick and tired” on a meat-based diet. More important, she says their customers enjoy the flavorful dishes The Tasteful Kitchen is known for.

The holiday season is the best time of the year, says Thompson. As their seasonal customers return to Tucson, seeing their smiling faces is the greatest gift. Guests  also will happen by, just to drop off birthday cards, which makes their customers feel like family, she says.

“We take such good care of everything, from the way we present our food and the way we care for the food — people feel the energy,” says Thompson.

Some customers come in with a list of food allergies, and Tasteful makes every effort to meet those needs, says Thompson.

The Tasteful Kitchen is taking Thanksgiving Day dinner reservations and will offer a three-course meal that includes two starters, either a local winter squash soup or an organic salad bundle; a choice among five entrees; and a dessert trio with pumpkin cheesecake, mini baked apple and cranberry jelly. Guests can dine between 2-6 p.m., and reservations are on a first come first serve basis. 

The Tasteful Kitchen is also taking reservations for its 10-course tasting event, which will kick off on Jan. 1. And keep your eyes peeled for their cookbook, she says.

Finding an alternative to typical American fare in Tucson can be challenging, so having a large menu to choose from keeps their eatery packed with customers, says Thompson.

“They’ve been thrilled, and so appreciative,” she says. “And I’m very grateful that we can be there for those people.”