By Ron Bernthal
Once a quiet Southwestern cowboy and ranching town, downtown Tucson has transformed itself over the past two decades into a vibrant and diverse urban center where high-tech start-ups, new restaurants and hotels, revitalized neighborhoods, and a gleaming Sun Link streetcar line have attracted thousands of young entrepreneurs, award-winning chefs and imaginative designers who want to be part of this metamorphous in the desert.
In addition to gathering in a professional, amenity-filled convention center or resort meetings venues, visitors can now visit a spectacular art museum, walk through a landmarked historic district, fish for large mouth bass or rainbow trout, explore the desert environment on horseback, watch a University of Arizona football game or drive to another country for sightseeing and shopping, all within a few days’ time.
Originally settled by native Hohokam tribal groups thousands of years ago, the Pima and Tohono O’odham tribes, descendants of the Hohokam civilization, have inhabited the region since the 1500’s. Tucson’s “modern” history began in 1775, when Spanish soldiers founded the Presidio San Augustin del Tucson. In 1821, when Mexico gained its independence from Spain, Tucson was part of Mexico’s northern state of Occidente, but the town would change hands again in 1853 when the United States acquired the land from Mexico under the Gadsden Purchase. Located just 60 miles north of the Mexican border, Tucson grew quickly as a cross-border shipping center and railroad town, and as the Arizona Territorial Capital. Arizona became the 48th state in 1912, with Phoenix as its capital, mostly because of its more central location.
Today, Tucson’s rich cultural history can be seen (and heard) in a unique Mariachi mass, held each Saturday morning at the beautiful and historic St. Augustine Cathedral at 8 a.m. Residents and visitors flock to the iconic 1920’s-era Rialto Theatre and the 1930’s Fox Tucson Theatre for shows and concerts, and the Hotel Congress, opened in 1919, for dinner and cocktails (try the hotel’s Cup Café for breakfast, lunch or dinner). All three buildings are beautifully restored and offer ideas for creative meetings and group functions.
Of course, nothing distinguishes Tucson’s history more than its natural surroundings, and a visit to the nearby Saguaro East and Saguaro West National Parks, or a drive to Sabino Canyon, part of the nearby Coronado National Forest, is a must for any visitor. The drive into Tucson Mountain Park from downtown doesn’t take very long, but the high-altitude view of the city and surrounding desert and mountains from 3,170-foot Gates Pass Scenic Overlook is spectacular.
WHERE TO DINE
Two years ago, when Tucson was designated a World City of Gastronomy by UNESCO, the first and only city in the United States to receive such a designation, foodies in the big coastal cities rolled their eyes. But not anymore. Tucson has the longest agricultural history of any city in North America, extending back more than 4,000 years, but only in recent years have culinary aficionados noticed the city’s extensive use of food banks, seed libraries, farmers’ markets, community gardens and community kitchens to preserve historic traditions and fuse new ideas with ancient farming methods. It is no surprise that Tucson’s restaurants rely heavily on the farm-to-table concept, and many include some of the more traditional desert food ingredients like cholla buds, mesquite flour, tepary beans and prickly pears into their menus.
Naturally, many visitors indulge in the area’s delicious Mexican cuisine at venues like Penca, an upscale, downtown restaurant where Patricia and Ron Schwabe serve authentic Mexico City-style tapas, artisan cheese and guacamole “boards,” locally sourced beef and vegetables, grilled swordfish and a full bar. Elvira’s has been a popular Mexican restaurant in the town of Tubac, an hour south of Tucson, and has recently opened a Tucson location on Congress Street. Located in a restored historic building, with live music three times per week, Elvira’s of Tucson will add to the city’s “urban chic” culinary scene.
One of the newest and most interesting downtown venues is the Carriage House Event Space & Cooking School, opened in 2016, under Chef Janos Wilder (who also runs the popular Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails). At Carriage House, Chef Wilder along with other talented local chefs offer cooking demonstrations and classes to residents and visitors by reservation, and the venue provides unique event space for social and corporate events and pop-up dinners, and its Dim-Sum + Then Some Brunch, has become a favorite activity on Sundays, 10:00 am – 2:00 pm. The 4,000-squarefoot venue has capacity for 160 guests at sit down events, 200 at lecture/reception events, as well as private dining room space for smaller groups of 15-30 guests. Classes for up to 70 students are held in the modern Demonstration Kitchen.
Other culinary highlights include the traditional tableside guacamole making at Loews Ventana Canyon Hotel’s Flying V Bar & Grill and the tender cuts of beef at Casino del Sol’s PY Steakhouse, a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence venue. Try the Peruvian ceviche with aji amarillo peppers and the short rib tacos entrée at the new Contigo Latin Kitchen at the Westin La Paloma, the grilled lamb chops in coconut curry or duck breast with lemongrass and shiitake mushrooms at the new Thai Bistro Senae, or cool off in the redesigned Desert Oasis Pool at the Hilton Tucson El Conquistador Golf & Tennis Resort while enjoying Eegee’s signature frozen fruit drinks at the property’s new poolside bar and grill, or in one of the poolside cabanas.
Other restaurants opening in the past year include Nook, for breakfast & lunch, OBON, a modern Japanese dining experience with ramen, sushi, entrees and sake, and Za’atar Mediterranean Restaurant & Bakery, with such Middle Eastern specialties as gyro, kabob, falafel, baba ganoush, hummus, and the “must taste” housebaked, traditional Assyrian bread called samoon.
Sharing a downtown courtyard are three other new eateries all able to work with corporate planners in various ways, including Johnny Gibson’s Downtown Market, a grocery market that also features a variety of “order at the counter” items for lunch or dinner, and a full espresso and craft beer bar, the Independent is a craft distillery and bar, and HighWire Lounge is one the few “molecular mixology” bars in the country, with cocktails that may use cotton candy as a sweetener, or another drink known as a “caviar drop” that is served on a spoon.
The trendy Mercado San Agustin, opened in 2010 and located directly across from a Sun Link streetcar stop, offers frequent live music, culinary and artistic events amid an array of interesting boutique businesses and food venues. The larger Agustin Kitchen is a busy restaurant specializing in New American & classic French cuisine with an emphasis on locally sourced products like Southern Arizona beef, olive oils, breads, flour and cheeses. Try one of their Arizona harvested wines or locally brewed craft beers.
A growing trend in Tucson, and in other U.S. cities, is to use shipping containers as bars and restaurants. Working with four locally owned restaurants and bars, developers have placed several of these containers in an empty lot on Fourth Avenue, with the businesses operating them as communal food and beverage spaces. Called the Boxyard, it is another unique development that is spicing up downtown Tucson’s vibrant entertainment and walking district.
OpenTable, the online restaurant reservation service, named Vivace as one of America’s most scenic restaurants. Vivace overlooks Tucson from its location on North Campbell Avenue, which means views of the mountains, the fiery sunset and at night the ribbons of city lights stretching across the black desert floor. Visit Vivace not only for the view, but for owner and chef Daniel Scordato’s excellent northern Italian menu which includes delicious seafood soup, a variety of fresh fish, meat, pasta and tempting desserts. Private dining is available for up to 50 guests.
WHERE TO STAY
Tucson’s popular desert resorts offer all the amenities a corporate group could wish for, including spacious guestrooms, spa/fitness/ swimming facilities, professionally-designed golf courses, fine and casual dining venues and high-tech meeting facilities, all surrounded by stunning mountain and desert vistas. Ritz-Carlton’s 253-room Dove Mountain Resort, 20 minutes from downtown, offers 44,000 square feet of indoor/outdoor function space and a 27-hole Nicklaus Signature Golf course nestled against the Tortolita Mountain Range. The Lodge at Ventana Canyon’s Tom Fazio-designed Mountain Golf Course is ranked among the best in Arizona by Golfweek, and the resort’s 7,000 square feet of deluxe meeting space and 50 all-suite guestrooms, makes it a nice destination for corporate retreats.
Many new properties have opened along the I-10 & I-19 corridors, and in the university district, but the $32 million AC Hotel by Marriott (Broadway and Fifth) will be the first business hotel built downtown since 1972, when it opens in summer 2017. With 130 rooms and six suites, the eight-story property will also feature a 6th floor indoor swimming pool with a wall of windows and views of the sky. The two floors above will have balcony views of the pool from the interior rooms, and all exterior rooms will have city views. With its public lounges designed to encourage collaboration as co-working spaces, the hotel will attract the high-tech-oriented millennium travelers who have already fostered an active start-up community in the city. Instead of room service, the hotel will feature continental breakfast, snacks and evening tapas.
The 10-room, Downtown Clifton motel opened last year in the artsy Armory Park district just south of downtown. The property offers eclectic accommodations within a renovated, mid-century design-driven property. Rooms are furnished with one-of-a-kind restored antique furniture, artwork from local artists are displayed, and the white brick walls and wooden beams provide a pleasant, Arizona-style experience.
The new Radisson Hotel Tucson Airport offers 166 guestrooms and 14,000 square feet of conference and event space. The hotel features La Fresita Restaurant, with American and Mexican cuisine, a heated, Olympic-size pool, fitness and business centers, and high-speed WiFi throughout the property. The hotel provides complimentary airport shuttle service, and is close to attractions like Reid Park Zoo, the Tucson Children’s Museum and David Monthan Air Force Base.
WHERE TO PLAY
The Barrio Viejo neighborhood is one of Tucson’s oldest areas, a gritty and interesting 18th-century commercial and residential district that still retains its original, colorful old adobe houses, located just south of the Tucson Convention Center. The historic and distinctive architecture is quite evident in the area, and many photographers and advertising executives love its visual look, and new development is ongoing in Barrio Viejo, with offices, artist studios and adobe restoration making this area one of the most desirable places to work or live. Check out the Cushing Street Bar & Restaurant, in an 1860 adobe building, for a unique Tucson experience.
In Tucson’s Historic Warehouse Arts District, artists and local businesses have created working studios and offices within former railroad warehouses. At Santa Theresa Tile Works, visitors and corporate groups with reservations can participate in workshops to craft mosaic plaques, tables or custom-made pieces. Within the district is Tucson’s restored 1907 rail station, now with Amtrak service, and adjacent to the station is Maynard’s Market & Kitchen, offering gourmet meals, wine tastings and corporate event space.
Corporate groups can visit the University of Arizona’s Biosphere 2 and get a behind-the-scene look at this amazing, three-football field size complex. Under 6,500 panes of glass is a rain forest, coastal fog desert marsh, a million-gallon ocean, and other environments, all at 4,000 feet elevation at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains, about 50 minutes north of downtown.
For visitors to the Tucson Convention Center, or the Mercado San Agustin, it is a short walk to the architecturally fascinating Mercado District, a new community that sits on one of the oldest inhabited regions of North America. Constructed in old world style, but using new materials, are residential and commercial buildings where the ambience of Latin America pervades this interesting new neighborhood. While walking through this area you will see how today’s designers used the traditional wrought iron balconies, interior courtyards, wall fountains, and color plaster to create a modern development for living and working.
The Mercado District is an urban environment similar to those found in the great city centers throughout Europe and Latin America. Adjacent to the residential walking streets of the District is the Mercado San Agustin. The Mercado San Agustin is home to bustling restaurants, open-air markets and locally owned retail shops, and it hosts many of the City’s seasonal celebrations. As the western most stop on Tucson’s Modern Streetcar line, the Mercado District is conveniently linked to Tucson’s vibrant cultural activities and business hubs.
NOTEWORTHY DAY TRIPS
Located about an hour south of Tucson, Tubac is a small, pretty village in the Santa Cruz River Valley that is home to several good restaurants, art galleries, the Tubac Presidio and Museum and an original 1885 schoolhouse. Browse the artwork at Cobalt Fine Arts Gallery, Rogoway Turquoise Tortoise Gallery and K Newby Gallery & Sculpture Garden, and for lunch at Elvira’s for Mexican food or Shelby’s Bistro for American fare.
Within biking or walking distance of Tubac village is the Tubac Golf Resort & Spa, located on 500 acres of what is still known as the Otero Ranch, a plot that was awarded to Don Toribio de Otero in 1789 in the name of the Spanish king, Charles IV.
The original main house of Otero Ranch still stands as the centerpiece of the Tubac Resort and Otero descendants, now in their 10th generation, with many living in the Tucson area, often tell stories of their family’s long history in the region. The resort features 98 Hacienda and Casita Suites and spacious Posada guest room accommodations, with additional rooms available in the original Otero House. The property offers a destination spa, Stables Ranch Grille & Bar, a rustic dining room and outdoor patio open to the public for breakfast, lunch and dinner, meeting rooms, and a 27hole golf course surrounded by mountain ranges.