Downtown Phoenix's historical Tom's Tavern evolved from an old morgue to a modern-day hot spot.

Timeless Tavern

Written by Austen Browne Category: History Issue: January 2017
Group Free
Today’s hipster restaurateurs think they’re so original with their churches-turned-taquerias and funeral homes-turned-pizzerias. In 1929, proto-hipster Tom Higley started the new-use trend before today’s cool kids’ grandparents were even born, converting an old morgue on First and Adams streets into a coffee shop and pool hall.
“Once Prohibition was repealed, it became more of a restaurant/pool hall” and eventually Tom’s Tavern, says current chef/owner Jim Gallen. It became a hot spot for politicians, lawyers and government officials lunching and drinking Downtown. “More cases were decided at Tom’s than in the courthouse,” Gallen says, invoking a quote from Tom’s Tavern lore, reportedly from an unknown early employee. “Every city governor since 1932 has dined in the restaurant,” Gallen says. “And that trend will hopefully continue for a long, long time.”
Honoring the tavern’s history is key for Gallen, who purchased the property in 2016 after it changed hands many times over the decades (including a stint with the Bidwill family of Arizona Cardinals fame, and a move to its current location on Central Avenue in 1986) and plans to maintain the icon’s heritage while adding bits of modern flair.
“My No. 1 goal in life is to maintain the history of Tom’s Tavern,” Gallen says. “Little, unique restaurants like this one are very important. I am honored to be a shepherd of it.” Nostalgic photos cover the walls in the Downtown Phoenix eatery, and an old time-y sign calling out the “Governor’s Room” lends the restaurant the gravitas of its historical roots. The food, however, is decidedly modern: For the first time in its 88-year history, the tavern has a fresh dinner menu (roasted garlic and ricotta ravioli and slow-cooked pork belly are highlights) and extended hours.
“I am trying to change the culture of the restaurant,” Gallen says. “I think Downtown needs another quality dining experience and we are situated in a location where we can give it to them.”
– Austen Browne and Leah LeMoine

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