U.S. Route 66 may have officially ceased to exist in 1985, but the defunct grande dame of mid-century motoring still inspires a certain bygone American romance. Top-down road trips. Panoramic desert views. Highway diners and apple pie.
Oh, yes – and perky Grenache blends with hints of oak and vanilla.
In many cases, travelers can still experience Route 66 the way motorists did before the federally-funded Interstate Highway System bypassed many of the funky in-between towns that made the drive great. Having once boasted 401 miles of the route – which stretched from Chicago to the Southern California coast – Arizona maintains a well-documented collection of classic hotels, restaurants and sightseeing attractions that date back to the original Route 66 and trade on its name.
But there’s also a new generation of stay-and-play destinations in the historic Route 66 towns of northern Arizona – wineries, fine dining and other sybaritic diversions that might not have appealed to Eisenhower-era Americans, but make today’s culture vultures go into conniptions.
Mother Road, here we come.
Traveling east to west, the first Arizona town on the historic Route 66 – which largely ran parallel with the current I-40 – is the unincorporated Apache County community of Sanders. It’s remote, dusty and possibly depressing. A better starting point for your Route 66 adventure is the Navajo County town of Holbrook, located about 180 miles north of Phoenix just over the White Mountains. Be forewarned: Holbrook is no Paris – it’s not even Kingman – but it is the home of the semi-famous Wigwam Motel (811 W. Hopi Dr., Holbrook, 928-524-3048, sleepinawigwam.com), a motor court known for its kitschy teepee-shaped rooms. Not new, but arguably an Arizona bucket list item.
Motoring west for 30 miles, you’ll find a turnoff for Winslow, made famous by the Eagles hit “Take It Easy.” Winslow is a special place. Propped up against the high desert plains, it has a soulful edge-of-the-universe quality – and also chef John Sharpe’s incomparable Turquoise
Room at the historic La Posada Hotel (303 E. Second St., 928-289-4366, laposada.org). An original Fred Harvey property that once catered to cross-country locomotive travelers, La Posada is hardly new, and neither is the Turquoise Room, which opened in 2000. But Sharpe’s Native-influenced, James Beard-nominated cuisine isn’t a been-there, done-that sort of proposition. Guided by local farmers and foragers, the restaurant’s menu is a delightfully protean creature, always shifting, always changing. On my recent visit, Sharpe had just unveiled grilled Alaskan halibut – “caught last week,” the server assures me – served over a saucy retinue of mushrooms and herbs, including meaty lobster mushrooms plucked from the nearby San Francisco Peaks. It’s exquisite.
Sharpe also has a fondness for lamb; specifically, lamb sourced from a free-range farm in New Mexico. Larded with currants, pinion and Sonoran wheat berries – and served with a peppy mint aioli – Sharpe’s Churro lamb meatballs are almost worth the drive to Winslow alone. Eating them, I indulge the notion that Sharpe would be fast friends with Valley chef Charleen Badman, who exhibits a similar aptitude for heritage crops and ungulate meats at FnB in Scottsdale.
The sheer gravity of Sharpe’s brilliance seems to be drawing a tidy dining scene into Winslow’s orbit. Once a culinary black hole, the town now has its own coffee roaster in Mojo Cafe (1700 N. Park Dr., 928-289-6656), an American-style grill in DJ’s Restaurant and Lounge (1701 N. Park Dr., 928-289-3274, djsrestaurantwinslowaz.com) and flight of recently-opened Mexican eateries. E&O Kitchen (703 Airport Rd., 928-289-5352) serves much-admired pork tortas out of a nondescript doublewide near the Winslow Airport.
Driving west out of town on the I-17, I stop in the town of Winona, memorably name-checked in the Nat King Cole hit “Route 66.” Let’s just say: not a lot to see. Go ahead and forget Winona.
Winslow to Flagstaff
Tracing the true Route 66 becomes a bit problematic in Flagstaff, now a bustling mountain city of 65,000 souls. Numerous streets and roads seem to claim to be the Mother Road, a legacy of the town’s many expansion and rerouting phases. Ask locals in the know, however, and they’ll point you to a primordial Route 66 artery that should be easy for Valley visitors to remember: Phoenix Avenue, located just south of the train tracks in the old Heritage Square district. And no mid-century relic on Phoenix Avenue is more Route 66-y than the Motel DuBeau (19 W. Phoenix Ave., 928-774-6731, modubeau.com) with its iconic radio tower signage, built to beckon travelers when U.S. 66 was rerouted a block north.
So what’s new about the DuBeau? A new beer and wine lounge, for one – perfect to chat up the stream of foreign Americana junkies who flow through Flag. Coupled with the DuBeau’s
2016 marks the 90th anniversary of Route 66 – a fact not lost on tourist-friendly local businesses. Karma Sushi created a special Route 66 roll to commemorate the occasion, and Little America Hotel whipped up a bunch of commemorative chocolates to place on guests’ pillows.
It might be a waste of space to enumerate all the excellent, chef-driven restaurants in Flagstaff – we’ve been steadily extolling their virtues for years, from the farm-to-table Coppa Cafe (1300 S. Milton Rd., Ste. 107, 928-637-6813, coppacafe.net) to the slurp-a-licious ramen bar SoSoBa (12 E. Rte. 66, Ste. 104, Flagstaff, 928-774-3471, nonstopnoodleshop.com), which recently opened a location in Phoenix. But there’s one buzzy Flagstaff eatery we haven’t told you about: Shift Kitchen and Bar (107 N. San Francisco St., Ste. 2, 928-440-5135, shiftflg.com), a New American bistro that was still a week or two away from opening during my last visit. Expect “global, inventive, Citizen Public House-like fare,” according to a local Flag food-hound.
The Flagstaff visitors’ bureau has helpfully compiled a list of 66 things to do during the Mother Road’s anniversary year. Find it at flagstaffarizona.org/route66.
Twenty miles west on the I-40 sits the town of Williams, historic gateway to the Grand Canyon’s legendary South Rim and arguably the rising star of the new-look Route 66 nostalgia tour. It’s got the widespread “66” shield signage. It’s got the zip lines and family diversions. It’s certainly got plenty of golden-era greasy spoons.
But, now, it also has a winery. Or at least a tasting room for a winery. Using grapes sourced from the southern Arizona vineyard hub of Willcox, Grand Canyon Winery (138 W. Rte. 66, 928-635-5232, thegrandcanyonwinery.com) has done the unlikely: started a winery where a pine forest still rules. Under the sage, outsourced guidance of master winemaker Eric Glomski of Page Springs Cellars, GCW specializes in juicy, fruit-forward varietals from the light-bodied side of Arizona’s Rhône-like spectrum: quaffable Grenache and Mourvèdre red blends with plummy bursts of Merlot; along with sturdy Old World-style whites. They’re all poured ($15 for a flight of six) in a cozy bar space on the Historic 66 drag.
GCW is the creation of the Kennelly clan, an industrious family of tipplers who also own Historic Brewing, the brash Flagstaff-based craft beer collective that’s been winning converts in the Valley as fast as they can pour their tasty cherry-and-vanilla-steeped Piehole Porter. As it so happens, the Kennellys recently opened a Historic taproom in Williams, too, just steps away from the winery, where you can score not only a Piehole, but also some fairly terrific pub grub (141 Railroad Ave., 928-635-4150, historicbarrelandbottle.com). My tempura-fried avocado shears – served with garlicky drizzles of red chile sauce – pairs ideally with a brooding peach ale.
Co-founder Carole Kennelly, whose duties include coining the tortuous puns that attend most of Historic’s new beer releases (like the “Wu-Tangerine Wit”), says the brewery will open a Sedona location soon and is exploring bottling options. “But we have just a teeny-tiny little lab,” she says. “We gotta make sure we’ve got the infrastructure first.”
Such progressive tones seem to ring throughout Williams, which also boasts Station 66 Italian Bistro (144 Rte. 66, Williams, 928-635-3992, kennellyfamilyconcepts.com) and a white-tablecloth New American family bistro called Kicks on Route 66 (2550 W. Rte. 66, 928-635-2052, kickson66az.com) among its new-ish restaurant additions.
The town even has that most welcome emblem of New Economy hipster gentrification: an auto garage converted into a tap room. Two generations ago, Route 66 tourists went to the South Rims Wine and Beer Garage (514 E. Rte. 66, 928-635-5902, southrims.com) to fix a flat on the family Fleetwood. Now they’re going for IPAs and pretzel burgers. It truly is a new day.
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