Photos by Evie Carpenter
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Tom’s Tavern, a longtime gathering place for Arizona politicians, has a history as interesting as its food.
The restaurant opened in 1929 and has hosted governors, mayors, lawyers and more in the decades it has operated. But it fell on hard times in the past few years as the economy slumped and then-owner Michael Ratner struggled with cancer. When Ratner died in 2010, the restaurant’s fate was unknown.
Then Arizona Cardinals President Michael Bidwill stepped in, purchasing the business, renovating the building and creating a new buzz at Tom’s Tavern.
The restaurant, under Bidwill’s ownership, has a fancy new interior but still proudly displays its history with pictures on the walls, including a framed pair of Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s famous pink underwear. It is clean and shiny, but it keeps its tavern vibe with dim lighting and a smoky scent.
The restaurant looks, sounds and smells like a successful business.
But as with many successful restaurants — like McDonald’s or Applebee’s, for example — the food is disappointing. Tom’s Tavern is better than these massive chains, but it’s comparable to the nearby, similarly government-catering Arrogant Butcher, only with a more traditional menu. It serves sandwiches, burgers and entrees with a common theme of savory flavors.
On my first trip to Tom’s Tavern, I ordered the most manly, tavern-like meal possible: a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich with a side of chili. It was the kind of lunch that could be the subject of an advertisement aired during a football game. It was a great tavern experience.
The overall quality of the food was less impressive.
The BLT was tasty but not amazing. With only three ingredients, plus bread and the option of mayonnaise, a BLT is difficult to mess up. The bacon was crunchy, the tomatoes were juicy and the lettuce was the same as any other lettuce. It was a good sandwich, but no better than the BLT at Hanny’s.
The chili didn’t overwhelm me, either. On a cool day, any chili is good, but this bowl was slightly lacking in flavor. It seemed the chili was extra spicy to make up for its shortcoming in taste.
On my next visit to Tom’s Tavern, I gave the menu a chance to redeem itself with some more exotic orders.
For an appetizer, I ordered the black bean hummus, which had a delicious, mealy flavor but was cold and a bit crusty on the edges. Oddly, it was served with only four small slices of pita bread, which got me through about a tenth of the hummus. After asking for more, I might have halfway finished the hummus. Luckily, the kalamata olives served with it were delicious.
I also got the Southwest cheesesteak, a moderately creative take on a classic sandwich. It was a typical cheesesteak but on smaller and softer pieces of bread, and with more peppers. The steak was tender and juicy, but like the chili, it was low on flavor and a little high on spiciness. The bread was soft, though, and the side of fries was one of the best parts of the meal. The extra skinny shoestring fries had a bit of Parmesan cheese sprinkled on top and were greasy enough to be a guilty pleasure without being drenched.
I’ll probably return to Tom’s Tavern in the hopes of meeting Gov. Jan Brewer, but the restaurant’s food isn’t its biggest attraction. The business is a cultural icon in downtown Phoenix that has been a mainstay for generations. I hope to see it last at least a century, but I can’t say the same about its menu.
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