After making waves in late 2020 with their debut restaurant, Southeast Asian-influenced Belly Kitchen & Bar (named one of our Best New Restaurants in 2021), Phoenix restaurant veterans and longtime friends Robert Cissel, Paul Waxman and Michael Babcock are back at it.
This summer, the Instrumental Hospitality partners will launch a second Belly at Epicenter in Gilbert. Then they’ll head back to Downtown Phoenix to open Sin Muerte, a vegetarian restaurant set to debut later this summer in a 1937 Mission-style building that once housed a funeral home. The kitchen will be run by chef Vince Mellody (former owner of Bri) along with Babcock, and the beverage program will be helmed by Waxman.
We chatted with Babcock about their new venture.
How did you conceptualize Sin Muerte?
Originally, it started as a steakhouse, which I think is a great part of the story. We were standing around the building and trying to bounce around ideas about what to do. “Let’s do a world-class steakhouse with seafood platters [and] candlelit tables, where everyone is beautiful.” But as we were renegotiating the final parts of our project with the landlord for this space, we all decided that maybe a steakhouse isn’t the right thing to do in the middle of a pandemic and supply chain crisis and massive inflation. We decided to go completely the opposite direction and considered doing a vegetarian restaurant. I pitched what that initially looked like, and we just all nodded our heads and said, “Let’s run with it.” That’s how it started.
What can we look forward to on the menu?
Originally, we asked ourselves, “What should a vegetarian restaurant in Phoenix look like? Do we want to make faux fried chicken sandwiches and black bean burgers, or do we want to dig a little deeper?” So, I started answering this question over the course of a month and realized we should follow the path of the best vegetarian cuisines and use them as a template. The best thing we could do is something inspired by the Mediterranean diet, because it’s naturally based in vegetables and olive oil and bread.
Where did you look for inspiration?
I started looking around the globe and at Google maps. I looked at Phoenix and drew this line, the 33rd north latitudinal line across the globe, and looked at all the food across that area, all the cultures, and I realized there’s this really cool opportunity. It’s a marriage of Sonoran Mexican Southwest meets coastal California, meets Southern coastal Italy, meets Israel and Morocco. All these places on the 33rd north latitude line. Let’s make dishes that blur all those lines, like hummus with braised mushrooms next to pico de gallo.
You’ll be using local produce and products when possible. What will you do in the summer when local vegetables are scarce?
A lot of the vegetables we want to use grow almost year-round in Phoenix. Maybe I can’t be super hyper-local in the summer, but I can certainly get plenty of stuff from California. We also want to work with our Phoenix dry good purveyors like Ramona Farms and Hayden Flour Mills.
How did you land on Sin Muerte, which translates as “No Death” in English?
We were literally standing around the building, which was an old funeral home at one point, and now we’re going to open a vegetarian restaurant in the space. This was a place where the dead went, and now it will be a place that, more or less, celebrates the act of not dying. It just clicked with all of us.
Why is Downtown Phoenix important to you?
Phoenix is my hometown. I started Welcome Diner, and that’s the neighborhood I still live in. You know what Downtown Phoenix was like 11 years ago. Not to toot my own horn, but I’m one of the people who really shined a light on my hometown. I wanted my neighborhood to be really cool and thought that opening up a little diner in a neighborhood where there was only one other restaurant, a takeout burrito place, was a cool idea, and everyone else thought I was crazy. It turned out to be a good idea. Now, you can drive down Roosevelt at 9:30 p.m. on a Tuesday and it feels like Mill Avenue or Old Town Scottsdale.