The historic Tom’s Tavern in downtown Phoenix is scheduled to officially reopen to the public next Thursday after 10 weeks of renovation. A landmark and a neighborhood favorite in the Valley for decades, the iconic restaurant was saved from closing earlier this year by Arizona Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill.
“We’re trying to keep that history and bring it back as a center for downtown,” said Greg Freed, general manager of Tom’s. “Every day, regulars come knocking on the door asking when we are going to be opening and checking on our progress.”
A walk into the newly renovated Tom’s Tavern is a trip into the past. Everything is built of dark, heavy wood. The white marble-top bar is reminiscent of the original one. An old abacus, a relic of the days when Tom’s was a smoky billiards room frequented by powerful judges and lawyers, sits in a corner not far from a newly mounted flat-panel television.
“We really wanted to give it the feeling of a tavern instead of a diner like before,” Freed said. “We also overhauled the menu, with 98 percent of everything on the menu being made from scratch.”
The walls of Tom’s are adorned with dozens of framed black-and-white photos, which serve as a visual timeline depicting the rich history of the restaurant, reminding patrons of the importance of preserving the past.
Tom’s Restaurant and Tavern opened in 1929 in the city morgue building. Tom Higley had a vision to turn the building into a place where the food was good and the prices were low. Tom’s Tavern passed from one owner to the next over the years, providing everything from bowls of chili to illegal gambling.
Tom’s was eventually bought by a restaurant group, Big 4 Restaurants, in 1988 and moved to its current location on First Avenue and Washington Street in Renaissance Square.
Previous owner Michael Ratner, who purchased the restaurant 18 years ago, kept Tom’s going through the disruptions of projects like the CityScape development and the addition of light rail.
Ratner was diagnosed with and eventually succumbed to esophageal cancer in November of last year. Before his passing, he garnered a deal with Bidwill, Ratner’s longtime friend and the owner of the Arizona Cardinals, who has been a loyal patron of Tom’s since his days as a prosecutor. Ratner’s wife, Terry, saw the deal through after Ratner’s passing.
“I promised him I would keep (Tom’s) going,” Terry said. “I’m excited. I know Michael would be, too. It’s very bittersweet.”
In February, Bidwill officially became the owner of Tom’s. His plan was simple: Update the menu and look of Tom’s while preserving its rich history in the city and the tradition it represents.
Bidwill did make some big changes, however. The original entrance was moved to another part of the restaurant. The private governors’ room, which will be free to rent and sits up to 25 people, was updated with the latest electronics to facilitate computer integration for presentations.
Tom’s will also be open on weekends, a first for Phoenix’s oldest restaurant, Freed said.
“I’m nervous and excited,” said Lisa Mogradi, a longtime employee. “It is incredibly different, and I think those changes will bring in a different crowd than before, and the regulars are going to have to adjust to the new menu.”
Today, Tom’s will host an invitation-only dinner for former Phoenix Police Officer Jason Schecterle’s foundation, Beyond the Flames. Tickets are $150 and will include an evening of rubbing elbows with some of the Valley’s most prominent people, along with food from Tom’s new executive chef, Jason Choate.
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Correction: October 6, 2011
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Tom’s Tavern was reopening after eight months of renovation. The false statement was made in both the headline and first paragraph of the story. Tom’s Tavern has been closed for only 10 weeks.