Escape to Food Mountain; photography by Mirelle Inglefield

Escape to Food Mountain

Written by Nikki Buchanan Category: Food Reviews Issue: January 2018
Group Free

Pound for pound, the greatest Arizona dining town is… Flagstaff? Led by a cadre of motivated restaurateurs, the mountain hamlet of 70,000 is scoring hit after restaurant hit.

Is Flagstaff the next Boulder – dubbed the “foodiest” small town by Bon Appetit in 2010?

It’s a worrisome or exciting question, depending on your point of view, for this once-sleepy mountain town, where skies are blue, traffic is choked and real estate prices are through the roof.

Fried Chicken Po’ Boy, Proper Meats + Provisions; photography by Mirelle Inglefield
Fried Chicken Po’ Boy, Proper Meats + Provisions; photography by Mirelle Inglefield

No doubt about it, Flag has experienced a spike in Boulder-like bougie-ness over the past several years, with the expected fringe benefit: a vibrant restaurant scene that, pound for pound, probably outranks anything we’ve got going on in the Valley. How did this happen in the land of hacky sacks and plaid-shirted lumberjacks? It’s a tale of faith and grit reminiscent of Northern Arizona’s log cabin-building pioneers of yesteryear.

Flagstaff as dining destination is a relatively new phenomenon, but not unexpected, given Flag’s affluent population of second-home owners, its walkability and its atmosphere of college-town experimentation, sustained by nearby Northern Arizona University. Dave Smith, chef-owner of Root Public House, pinpoints 2006 as the town’s culinary annus mirabilis – the year his friend Paul Moir opened Brix, a wine-centric Contemporary American restaurant that was more progressive than anything Flagstaff had seen before. “That was the beginning of a wave that’s cresting now,” Smith says, referring to the spate of new and largely upscale restaurants that have opened in the 11 years since Brix debuted.

Fresh Fashions Cocktail, Lotus Lounge
Fresh Fashions Cocktail, Lotus lounge

For decades, most of Flagstaff’s restaurants catered to a largely undiscriminating audience of college kids who wanted burgers, pizza, burritos and cheap Chinese food, hold the ambiance. Locals with higher standards turned to now-defunct standbys like Granny’s Closet (famous for its wings and salad bar), Buster’s (steaks and seafood) or beloved special-occasion restaurant The Cottage Place, a fusty Continental for much of its life.

However, Moir – a soft-spoken, ponytailed restaurant lifer – saw Flagstaff’s potential.  “We’re a mountain town in a hot, dry desert state, [but] Aspen used to be a dumpy cow town, too,” he points out, adding that he and his wife Laura took exploratory evening walks when they first moved to town from California to be near family in 2005.

“It was quiet, almost scary [with no one on the streets],” Moir says. “But we saw the opportunity for a dining culture.” He admits that his Flagstaff friends weren’t quite as optimistic, and told him so. “‘It’s a horrible town to do a restaurant,’” he recalls them saying. “‘You can’t raise prices. Nobody gives a shit. Run away.’”  

Moir – who had worked every restaurant job from busboy to bartender – politely ignored them, and when he stumbled upon a historic brick carriage house two blocks from downtown, he knew he’d found the perfect spot for Brix, a concept strongly influenced by his California roots, with farm-driven fare like buttermilk fried rabbit and scallops on summer succotash. Having opened in May, right before the summer rush, Brix enjoyed a good first year that got even better when, “almost 12 months to the day,” according to Moir, it showed up in Condé Nast Traveler’s list of Top 95 New Restaurants in the World.

French Cruller, Tourist Home
French Cruller, Tourist Home

The unexpected press was a validating godsend. “The phone started ringing that very day with calls from Europe,” Moir recalls. Word spread locally, too, about Moir’s intimate restaurant, where the wine list matched the impressive culinary artistry. Ironically, forward-thinking Moir was spreading the local/seasonal gospel at least two years before the trend really caught hold in Phoenix. So devoted to the dictums of farm to table was Moir, he dispatched Smith to Peoria twice a week to shop at McClendon’s Select for produce, before finally finding a trucking company to do the job.

Derrick Widmark, who opened Flag’s Diablo Burger in 2009 – and also made frequent McClendon’s runs in the early days – is cut from the same cloth. Widmark previously ran Diablo Trust, a nonprofit, collaborative land stewardship program. Looking for ways to get average Flagstaffians engaged in conservation, he met agricultural ecologist and ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan, who introduced him to like-minded sheep ranchers and conservationists in Idaho. “The insight [I got] from the Idaho group was that public appreciation for conservation stewardship increased when the public actually ate lamb raised on conservation land,” Widmark says.

The accomplished amateur chef got the message loud and clear, and wasted no time in finding a tiny spot in Heritage Square, where he started turning out grass-fed burgers from the cattle raised by Diablo Trust. He put his char-grilled patties on handmade English muffins (courtesy of Phoenix baker MJ Coe), each of them branded, cattle-style, with the initials “db.” “There was something kind of organic about it,” Widmark says, explaining his foray into burger-dom. “The burger is a pretty democratic staple, and Flagstaff seemed like the perfect place to support this project.”

Sweetbreads, The Cottage
Sweetbreads, The Cottage

Meanwhile, Moir opened cozy Criollo Latin Kitchen just a stone’s throw from Diablo Burger that same year, bringing approachable Latin-inspired dishes such as Peruvian fish stew and spiced Venezuelan chocolate cake to an audience feeling the pinch of the Great Recession. “We did it for survival,” Moir admits. “Criollo helped us make it through, and it’s still our busiest restaurant.” But it was Brix, according to Widmark, that set the tone for the progressive, quality-driven restaurants that would continue to open across town, a sentiment echoed by Kevin Heinonen, who opened Tinderbox Kitchen with his cousin Scott Heinonen, also in 2009. “Paul and Laura [Moir] set the standard for this community,” Heinonen says. “[We said to ourselves] ‘Brix is doing it; we can do it too.’”

The Heinonens were pioneers in their own right, refurbishing a 1920s building south of the railroad tracks in an area known for its strip clubs and rowdy college bars. The neighborhood, called the Southside, was so sketchy in those days that customers often asked, “Will my car be OK on the street?” Nevertheless, good-looking Tinderbox was embraced by locals and out-of-towners alike for hearty but sophisticated comfort food (juniper-cured venison with blue cheese grits, for example) that scratched a woodsy high country itch. A year later, when Tinderbox often had 45-minute waits for dinner, and it was too cold for customers to stand outside, the Heinonens took over the abandoned space next door to create a waiting room they dubbed The Annex. They also brought in mixologist Nick Williams as a partner, giving him free rein to create an impressive cocktail program. The Annex quickly became a late-night gathering spot for locals in the restaurant industry. Nowadays, off-duty chefs, bartenders and servers often rub shoulders with the tourists who dined at their restaurants the same night.

Patio Scene, Brix
Patio Scene, Brix

In 2011, novice restaurateur Caleb Schiff gambled on the Southside too, finding a tiny, flatiron-shape space in an old textile factory a few blocks west of busy Beaver Street. Years earlier, he’d earned a master’s degree in geology at NAU, where, he says, he “fell in love with [Flagstaff] immediately.” In 2010, he ditched his NAU job researching climate change to open Pizzicletta, duplicating the wood-fired Neapolitan pizzas he also fell in love with on an extensive bike tour through Italy the previous summer. “I didn’t know anything,” he says, but rent on the space he leased was incredibly cheap ($1 per square foot per month), which “gave [him] the confidence to make the numbers work.”  

He says his leopard-spotted pies, topped with house-made mozzarella, arugula, almonds and the like, don’t appeal to most college kids. Pizzicletta draws a sophisticated crowd and, as Schiff modestly allows, “We have become a destination restaurant more than I could have ever dreamed.” Schiff’s neighbor, Mother Road Brewing, opened in 2011 as well, and the two have a symbiotic relationship – as naturally happens when you put beer and pizza together, craft or otherwise.

It hasn’t been quite as easy for chef Brian Konefal and his pastry chef wife Paola Fioravanti, who opened Coppa Café in a nondescript strip mall – far away from foot traffic – the same year. The couple came to Flagstaff, where Konefal grew up, in 2010 hoping it would be fertile ground for the sort of high-end European-style restaurant they had in mind. Brix and Tinderbox’s success suggested that Flagstaff might be ready, and yet they wondered, was there an audience for coppa di testa piccante or cold-smoked, cured egg yolk grated over house-made pasta?

They took the plunge, opening Coppa on a shoestring budget and furnishing it with mismatched tables and chairs. Over time, Konefal began turning out the elegantly austere presentations of reimagined European classics he had intended. Fioravanti’s croissants, tarts, canelés and chocolate bouchon were an easier sell from the get-go. Although Konefal offers steak frites for the masses, his heart lies in creating the edgy, obscure dishes he cooked in Europe and at high-end restaurants such as Eleven Madison Park in New York. He’s also passionate about foraging local mushrooms and other indigenous ingredients to put on his menus throughout the year. He admits that his “most sophisticated customers” – those who “speak the same language” –  are from far-flung places like Santa Fe, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Nevertheless, he clearly has confidence in Flagstaff, having recently signed another five-year lease.

SS-145 Pizza, Pizzicletta
SS-145 Pizza, Pizzicletta

Following a two-year development lull, two new food joints popped up on the Southside in 2014. Moir, who had become interested in the revival of craft butchery, opened Proper Meats + Provisions, a butcher shop-cum-cafe focusing on Arizona farm-raised meat and house-made charcuterie. It’s easily the best butcher shop in the state (whole animals are broken down in-house) as well as the best place in Flag to score a sandwich. Moir, who knew very little about butchery before he started, says he “joined a butchers’ guild, read a lot of books and watched YouTube videos,” then handed off the shop’s operation to Joe Fiandach, a lead line cook for Moir who expressed an interest in butchery.

Half a block up the street, the Heinonens opened Tourist Home Urban Market, a sunny café offering breakfast, lunch and baked goods all day. The 1920s building was a former boarding house for Basque sheepherders, but after years of neglect, the place was an eyesore. The Heinonens transformed it, sweeping the gritty stigma of the Southside out with the trash.

To be fair: Macy’s European Coffee House & Bakery, La Bellavia breakfast and lunch joint and Beaver Street Brewery had been chugging along on the Southside for years, but thanks to this influx of new upscale restaurants, the neighborhood suddenly seemed downright cool, a trend reinforced by the 2016 opening of Dave Smith’s Root Public House, which sits across the street from Proper.

After years of working with Moir as his partner, Smith branched out on his own, turning a run-down, decades-old college bar called The Mad Italian into a wood-floored, light-filled space that showcases local art and boasts a welcoming bar and funky rooftop patio. Knowing that he didn’t want to create a high-end restaurant his customers couldn’t afford to visit often, he turned to his Virginia roots, creating elevated but unpretentious American food with a slight Southern accent. His Southern-fried Arizona hot chicken, served on ciabatta with pickled vegetables and an oozy egg, has become a signature he can’t take off the menu. Smith admits he purposely casts a wide net, “offering a little bit of everything” to attract both tourists and the locals who support him all year long.

Like Smith, who mindfully moved to Flagstaff because he thought it could be something more than a wings-and-things college town, Joe and Dara Rodger came to Flagstaff with a plan. Collectively, their résumés included acclaimed restaurants in Denver, Napa and Boulder (Dara worked at James Beard Award-winning Frasca, co-owned by Phoenix home-boy Bobby Stuckey), and they knew they wanted to create a restaurant with food that Joe calls “big-city flavors” on small plates. They opened Shift, a veritable sliver of a restaurant in the downtown Babbitt Building in 2016, knowing that Flagstaff was “not quite there” in the way that Boulder was – meaning rents would be cheaper and the competition less stiff in a town just getting its culinary footing. Their playful, constantly changing menu, which includes pickled french fries with secret sauce and exotic parsnip soup with lamb belly, persimmon and labneh cheese, seems to appeal to everyone, however, and their eight-seat counter overlooking the kitchen fills up quickly.

Coppa di Testa Piccante, Coppa Café
Coppa di Testa Piccante, Coppa Café

Scott Heinonen took a risk, too, when he parted ways with his cousin Kevin to open The Cottage, situated in the little Southside bungalow that had housed The Cottage Place for 22 years. Two decades is a lot of history to overcome, but Heinonen painted the place, updated the décor and “turned it around” in just six weeks, creating a “Farmhouse French Bistro” menu that includes house-made charcuterie, sweetbreads and steak frites. Why French? Heinonen says, “I thought it would be a niche.” Then, jokingly: “I’m regressing while Joe [Rodger at Shift] is pushing it a bit.” Diversity is a good thing, but reconceptualizing a long-revered space has been a challenge, Heinonen acknowledges.

Moir faced a similar dilemma when he took over the Grand Canyon Café, a Chinese-American restaurant and 75-year-old Flagstaff institution, housed in a derelict but cool old building on Route 66. After months of spit and polish, he opened last summer, leaving the old diner counter, the booths and certain relics of the original menu (chop suey and chicken fried steak, for example) intact. As it turned out, loyalists of the original cafe didn’t appreciate newfangled versions of their old favorites, and Moir soon abandoned his bipolar approach. Fleshing out “an idea floating around in [his] head” for a while, he re-wrote and expanded the menu, fashioning a gastro-diner with “retro appeal but a progressive menu,” that includes dishes like duck confit and crab cake sandwich, pork belly fried rice and short rib pot pie. “It’s all done our way now,” he says, “and customers seem to love the food and retro vibe.”

In mid-November, Lotus Lounge, the Hotel Monte Vista’s new Pan-Asian restaurant, opened in a gorgeous multi-windowed two story space most recently inhabited by a cooking store, which proves Moir’s point that “a retail space closes and a restaurant goes in.” Jeremy Meyer, Smith’s former partner in Root, runs the fabulous cocktail program there, which proves another point: As local talent moves around, Flagstaff’s culinary scope increases.

Of course, it’s Moir – who got this whole food-town thing rolling – who now worries that Flag is overbuilt and the restaurant bubble will burst. So does Schiff, who says, “If the economy goes down, not all of us will make it.”

Probably true, but it’s hard not to feel excited about Flagstaff’s food scene and its remarkably close-knit food community, which collectively evokes the sentiment that a rising tide lifts all boats. As Kevin Heinonen points out, “People will do anything to stay here; you just dig in.”

No doubt, Flag restaurants are dealing with growing pains, but this feisty forest town is destined for greater things. Who knows? It might even achieve Widmark’s fanciful appraisal of the place: “Boulder with modesty.”

Masters of the Mountain - Up close and personal with the talent behind Flagstaff’s dining revolution

 

Flag Food at a Glance
Looking to acquaint yourself with Flagstaff’s food scene? PHOENIX dining critic Nikki Buchanan suggests this four-course primer.

Coppa Café
Coppa di Testa Piccante
It’s a beautiful thing, this spicy Italian version of head cheese, dry-rubbed with chiles, garlic and smoked paprika, then braised forever, rolled up, sliced into dainty rounds and served cold with pickled fennel, preserved lemon and Moroccan harissa.

The Cottage
Sweetbreads
Deglazed with Marsala wine and finished with bacon, capers, lemon, Dijon, butter and a touch of cream, Scott Heinonen’s meltingly tender sweetbreads are offal nirvana.

Proper Meats + Provisions
Fried Chicken Po’boy
Louisiana’s famous sandwiches have got nothing on this bad boy, a hoagie roll heaped with craggy fried chicken nuggets, house-made andouille sausage, slaw and a healthy sprinkle of chicken skin cracklings.

Pizzicletta
The SS-145  
It sounds like the name of a German submarine, and the ingredients – charred kale, gorgonzola, almonds and lemon – are just as oddball. But make no mistake: Caleb Schiff’s masterpiece pie is crazy-delicious.