Expedition: Prescott

Craig OuthierJanuary 1, 2018
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We visited the legendary high-country hamlet to seek out its less-obvious charms.

We Phoenicians need no Introduction to the historical high-desert town of Prescott. We’ve imbibed on Whiskey Row, hiked Granite Dells and admired the fine neoclassical architecture of the Yavapai County courthouse. We like how every hotel seems to have a ghost story, and we’ve been known to share, unprovoked, the historical tidbit that Prescott was Arizona’s territorial capital before Phoenix swiped that distinction away in 1889.

Also, it’s “PRESS-kit,” not “PRESS-kot.” C’mon, now.

So, yes, “we” know Prescott. But on my most recent trip to the town of 42,000, it also occurred to me that most of what I know is the beaten-trail stuff. The visitor’s bureau bullet points. So I resolved to counterprogram a little, and dig up some experiences that might not be evident to the naked eye.

No. 1: It has a Yelp five-star hotel.
Yeah, I know – any Yelp rating, good or bad, must be taken with a liberal helping of salt. But five-star averages are always intriguing, denoting either bullet-proof virtuoso mastery (see: Binkley’s) or masses-pleasing value on the dollar (see: Simon’s Hot Dogs). I guess Grand Highland Hotel (154 S. Montezuma St., 928-776-9963, grandhighlandhotel.com) offers a little of both. Set directly across the street from Courthouse Square in the heart of town, the boutique, 12-room Highland is quite affordable – as little as $98 per night in the low season – but it’s the combination of Old West mystique and tangible comfort that makes the place special.

Accessed by a single street-level door feeding a long staircase – the entire hotel, even the lobby, is upstairs – it has an unmistakable flophouse-made-good quality, the kind of classic Western redoubt where Doc Holliday stole away to do laudanum hits with one of his soiled doves, one might imagine. Make no mistake, the Highland is spotless now, and almost unbearably cute. An ownership change and remodel four years ago left the rooms with comfortable beds, clawfoot tubs and other tasteful territorial accoutrements, plus artfully exposed brick walls, to subtly remind visitors that they’re bedding down in a bit of history.

The jewel of the lot is the Grand Highland Room, which boasts a large bay window overlooking the square below, and “really amazing views of the courthouse Christmas lights and Fourth of July parade,” the manager says.

Capped off with a fetching complimentary breakfast spread of fresh rolls, yogurt, hard-boiled eggs and yogurt, the Highland truly offers nothing to dislike. Five-star rating, confirmed.   

skillet-baked lasagna at Papa’sNo. 2: You can mangia in Prescott’s own Little Italy.
Strangely, remarkably, within two blocks of Courthouse Square, there are seven Italian restaurants and pizzerias – and most of them are quite excellent. So how and when did Arizona’s most legendary cowboy town go all spaghetti Western?

“I think it has something to do with all the California transplants here – and all the people from Chicago and the Midwest, of course,” says Andrea Barattini, third-generation owner of the Papa’s Italian Restaurant (129½ N. Cortez St., 928-776-4880, papasitalianrestaurant.com), which has been serving up saucy, soul-warming Parmesans and old-school Caesar salads with finger-long strips of anchovies since the early ‘90s.

“Those are places where Italian cuisine really thrived after World War II,” she continues. “And I think people who grew up in those areas brought their appetites for good Italian food with them.”

Scanning the auditorium-size dining hall at Rosa’s Pizzeria (330 W. Gurley St., 928-445-7400, rosaspizzeriaprescott.com), I see little evidence that Prescott is oversaturated with Italian restaurants. The place is packed. And the food? Entirely above average. Steamed mussels make merry in a toothsome, garlicky broth of white wine, parsley and cherry tomatoes ($11), and my wife declares the penne alla vodka, larded with generous chunks of pancetta and imbued with a delightful smoky bouquet, the best she’s ever had ($13). It’s the kind of deft, mid-tier treatment of Italian I wish we had more of in the Valley.

The cool thing about the Italian scene in Prescott: There’s something to suit every mood. Want something intimate and vaguely romantic? Papa’s. Rowdy family or friend outing? Rosa’s. For something a little more fashionable and cuisine-forward, there’s Limoncello Pizzeria Napoletana (218 W. Goodwin St., 928-399-9978, limopizzeria.com), and for a straight-up slice-a-porium, you can hit Bill’s Pizza (107 S. Cortez St., 928-443-0800, billspizzaprescott.com).

And there’s more, but you’ll have to do your own recon to learn about those – after two days, I reached my threshold of marinara and carbs.

No. 3: It has the best bottle shop in Arizona.
On a tip, I walked from the Grand Highland two blocks east to Park Plaza Liquor & Deli (402 W. Goodwin St., 928-541-9894, parkplazaliquor.com), which the hotel manager told me was a popular eat-in/market concept with a great selection of beer, wine and spirits.

Ave Maria, does it ever. Imagine the beer fridge at Tops Liquors coupled with the wine selection at the old Sportsman’s on Camelback, paired with the spirits selection at Sun Devil Liquors in Mesa. I was particularly impressed by the creatively curated spirit selection, which included not just interesting global rarities like poblano-based liquor Ancho Reyes Verde (good luck finding that at Total Wine) but super-small-batch Arizona offerings that I’d never heard of, like Flagstaff’s Canyon Diablo Spirits (canyondiablospirits.com), which uses prickly pear and bhut jolokia ghost peppers in a pair of vodkas.

“Only Sun Devil Liquors can match our selection,” the cashier tells me, reasonably. “But you can’t eat there.”

And there’s the kicker: Park Plaza has a full-service, pizza- and pub-centric menu to go with its boffo booze selection. You can buy any bottle you like (spirits excluded) at regular retail prices to enjoy with your meal, for a modest corkage fee ($5 for wine, $2 for beer). Get the Philly cheesesteak, with shaved Angus piled high on a sub roll so soft, you use it to wash down your double IPA.


Hiking Boyle/DeBusk PreserveNo. 4: It has a secret city hike.
Before leaving on my Prescott weekend, I asked PHOENIX magazine hiking guru Mare Czinar for her favorite underrated or unknown hikes around Prescott, as an alternative to Thumb Butte, Granite Dells and some of the area’s more well-trod trails. She gave me some good suggestions, including the nearby Highlands Center for Natural History (highlandscenter.org), which offers several interpretive trails – i.e. trails designed with informative or educational appendages, so you learn a little about the flora and fauna as you work the quads. Mare also suggested Glassford Summit Trail (6000 E. Antelope Ln.) in nearby Prescott Valley, a deceptively banal-looking hill that offers wonderful views, an intense elevation gain (almost as much as Piestewa Peak back home) and a north face that often remains snowy into the late spring.

None of the aforementioned hikes is more than 20 minutes from downtown Prescott, but Mare’s suggestion of Boyle/DeBusk Preserve – “a ‘Who knew?’ kind of place,” she says – intrigued me because of its proximity. It’s a mere three-minute drive from Courthouse Square, splayed in a hilly, forested neighborhood just south of town, with three easy-to-find trailheads squeezed between the cabins. In the preserve, you’ll find a meandering, impossible-to-get-lost-in network of trails; a creek-bed ecosystem filled with interesting, bamboo-like grasses called scouring rush horsetail; and a woodsy mix of pine, juniper or oak. It’s not a jaw-dropper like Granite Dells, but it’s great for kids or low-impact hikers. Visit centralazlandtrust.org/boyle-debusk-conservation-easement.html for directions.

No. 5: The B&B scene is legit.
Bed and breakfasts haven’t historically dominated the hospitality conversation in Prescott, where many visitors seem to feel cheated if their room lacks a detailed mythology involving a murderous prostitute or suicidal bellhop. But there are a handful of nice ones: the Gurley Street Lodge (gurleystreetlodge.com), Whispering Pines Bed and Breakfast (whisperingpinesbb-az.com) and, arguably the choicest of the lot, Prescott Pines Inn (901 White Spar Rd., 928-445-7270, prescottpinesinn.com).  

the stately main manse at Prescott Pines InnOriginally a family ranch built by a 19th century judge, the inn today is a postcard made flesh, a radiant collection of East Coast-style clapboard structures set on a shady property just right of the highway in sleepy east Prescott. Florida transplants Rick and Karen Matvey purchased the inn in mid-2017 after an exhaustive search. They like Prescott just fine, but it was the Prescott Pines itself that sealed the deal. “We wanted a situation and a lifestyle where we weren’t just living in a cramped bedroom upstairs, which is the way many B&B owners live on the East Coast,” Rick says. “Here, we have the entire upstairs, so we’re comfortable, and we can concentrate on making our visitors comfortable.”

Roomy owners’ quarters notwithstanding, the Matveys leave plenty of acreage for their guests: The inn features 11 comfortable rooms, plus a detached, multi-room lodge better suited for families. The property goes the extra B&B mile, with a gazebo, meditation garden and fire pit perfect for after-dinner s’mores roasts, Karen says. She even offers to leave some marshmallows out.

All well and good, but the true measure of any B&B must reside in the latter “B” – and in that respect, it performs admirably. Raised by Italian women who took jealous pride in their cooking, Rick knows all the hacks of good breakfast cooking – for example, sprinkling just a bit of sugar on bacon the way his grandmother taught him. The morning’s breakfast, a fruit parfait followed by a cheesy roulade of egg and potato, hits the spot.

If you absolutely insist, Rick and Karen might even rattle a few chains and make ghost sounds at night. Breakfast roulade is great, but this is still Prescott.

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