Have a taste for art? Feast your eyes on these Valley restaurants, where local muralists, sculptors and mixed-media specialists have found unique and dynamic showcases for the fruits of their craft.
Valleywide Modern Mediterranean chain Pita Jungle has cultivated a special connection with local artists “starting when we opened our first Tempe store back in 1994,” says founding partner Bassel Osmani. Curated by Valley art teacher Jason Savaglio, the mini-exhibitions are democratically rotated between the company’s 23 locations, and each piece – like this Kobe Bryant portrait by Iris Ortega (pictured) – is available for sale. The rub? There is none. “We don’t take a commission,” Osmani says. “We don’t even handle the transaction. It’s good for the store, and good for the art community.”
Sidelined during the quarantine, Barrio Cafe reina abeja Silvana Salcido Esparza took the opportunity to embark on a six-figure artistic makeover of her iconic Mexican fine dining restaurant, enlisting such local mega-talents as Lalo Cota, Lucinda Hinojos, Pablo Luna and muralist Tato Caraveo (pictured), who contributed both the wistful portrait of her Uncle Diego, below, and the hypnotic slew of Dia de Los Muertos images in the restrooms. “It was a way to keep busy [while the restaurant was closed],” says Esparza, who hints that she may retire to Baja if business doesn’t return to pre-pandemic levels. “Plus, it kept the artists going… my own little stimulus project.”
CARRIE CURRAN & MAGGIE CURRAN-WILSON
Around the time he was picking up two ultra-coveted Michelin stars at Alex, his namesake restaurant at the Wynn Las Vegas, chef Alex Stratta was, by his own admission, letting himself go. Working too much. Drinking too much. Gaining too much. More than a decade later, a slimmed-down Stratta – who beat a subsequent cancer diagnosis – is back in the Valley with his first original restaurant since his Vegas days: a healthy, fast-casual concept based around grains, Mediterannean spices and lean proteins. In the midst of designing the restaurant, he visited Carrie Curran at her studio in the Mercado, to see about art lessons for his daughter. He came away with his new house artist. “I explained that I wanted light, airy, fresh, Mediterranean-meets-the-Hamptons and, go figure, she knew exactly what I meant,” Stratta recalls. Recruiting her daughter and fellow artist, Maggie Curran-Wilson, to help on the project, Curran took a list of Stratta’s favorite places – mostly coastal getaways – and turned them into a series of appetizing oil-on-canvases.
The most famous wall of local art in the Valley? It might well be the banquet room at Chris Bianco’s Uptown location of Pizzeria Bianco, hung floor to ceiling with evocative rustic paintings created by his 93-year-old father, Leo (pictured, far left). “My father’s paintings in my restaurants reflect the overall intention, which is to present authenticity, and put that authenticity in harmony with all its shadow,” the James Beard Award winner says. “Playing well with others matters on walls as it does on plates.”
BRIAN PRUDHOMME OF STOOPID TIKIS
Hula’s Modern Tiki
When Hula’s Modern Tiki honcho Dana Mule went a-hunting for original tiki carvings to decorate the new High Street location of his Polynesian gastropub, he had a surprising number of options. “There’s a thriving culture of tiki carvers in the Valley,” he says. But one stood out – longtime Hula’s fan Brian Prudhomme of Stoopid Tikis in Glendale. “Brian’s art simply spoke to us in a way that the others didn’t, and he is also very good at translating [fellow partner Chris Delaney’s] overall design vision into tangible, creative carvings.”
Dale Jodoin and his partners at storied Scottsdale watering hole AZ/88 rotate three to four large-format installation pieces in and out of the restaurant per year – part of their time-tested formula in sustaining its three-decade run as perhaps the Valley’s most painfully chic gathering spot. The massive, letterbox wall behind the bar, in particular, has become an enviable showcase space for local artists. “It holds a lot of significance for AZ/88, no doubt,” Jodoin says. “Many of [the Valley’s] most talented people have been featured there.” The current piece is also one of the first – a spiky bramble of aluminum and bronze that first graced the wall in 1994, done by late Valley artist Janis Leonard (pictured, right). “It’s one of our mainstays,” Jodoin says.