PHOENIX — Another Carl’s Jr., another Sonic, another Dairy Queen, another Taco Bell. My first evening in Phoenix was akin to driving through a low-budget Hanna-Barbera cartoon where the background loops and repeats. My stomach grumbled and my disposition quickly soured as I scanned the planar surroundings for something not prepared by the Colonel.
I hoped if I drove toward the city center the strip malls would relent and a charming downtown would unspool around me. But all I could see on the horizon was McDonald’s. Hunger makes us all do strange things, and I was one Circle K away from having dinner with my old friend Little Debbie. Perhaps she could ask her friend Dr. Pepper to join us?
But suddenly I spotted a neon beacon with a sign reading “Welcome Diner.” Outside, a tattooed, bearded, skinny jean-wearing crowd (genus: hipster) sat at picnic tables under strings of lights. I had found my people at the Welcome Diner, and a menu to match. There was Southern food, poutine, and very good cocktails.
This is a lesson to all of you big spenders who managed to snag a golden ticket to the big game. If you have an opportunity to tailgate between Gisele Bundchen hunting, there is much to see here. The trick is sniffing around like a pig looking for truffles and discovering what this city offers. I’m happy to report that it’s more than discounted slacks at Target and cheese fries at Ruby Tuesday.
Truth be told, the only Brady-related football action I’m familiar with is the episode of “The Brady Bunch” when Peter Brady hurls the pigskin at sister Marcia’s schnoz (“Oh, my nose!”) and Doug “Big Man on Campus” Simpson dumps her as a result. What a cad. But everyone is a Patriots fan these days, even football novices such as myself.
There are indicators all around Phoenix that the big game is coming, but I was interested in exploring the city beyond sport. What I learned from chatting up a few of the locals is that Phoenix has a small but lively arts and restaurant scene concentrated in a district called Roosevelt Row. The arty strip is being marketed as RoRo, although I never actually heard anyone call it RoRo while I was there. Probably because when said outloud, RoRo sounds like a name better suited to a Labradoodle than an arts district.
After discovering the city’s epicenter of RoRo cool, I made it my homebase. The folks at Short Leash Hot Dogs and Matt’s Big Breakfast were probably tired of seeing me by the end of my visit. Between frequent meals I dawdled in cool little boutiques such as Greenhaus, a combination gallery and boutique, Made Art Boutique, another combination gallery and shop, and GrowOp, a store that sells clothes, home decor, and antiques.
Later, as I sat in the Japanese Friendship Garden making lists of things I wanted to do in Phoenix, I came to a shocking conclusion: I wouldn’t have enough time to check out everything I needed to see. (Side note: Despite my best efforts, I didn’t make any friends in the Friendship Garden.)
There was a time in the not-so-distant past when Roosevelt Row and other areas of downtown Phoenix contained little more than weeds, blight, and a shop selling hubcaps. There are now more than 70 galleries in the vicinity of Roosevelt Street. Thousands flood Roosevelt for the First Fridays Art Walk. As the galleries emerged, so did restaurants and shops. It’s a close-knit community that is still in its infancy, but it appears that the infant is starting to walk.
My favorite gallery wasn’t in RoRo, but on the outskirts of town near Chase Field, the Arizona Diamondbacks’ ballpark. The Bentley Gallery, a 22,000-square-foot warehouse, was once a 1918 laundry. It’s now a refurbished, exposed brick haven for modern art by local and international artists. There are so few historic buildings in Phoenix that I was drawn to the handful I could find. The Pressroom opened earlier this year in a restored 14,000-square-foot warehouse and hosts shows as varied as “The Vagina Monologues” and the EDM duo Knife Party, who will be at the Pressroom Super Bowl weekend. Sadly, “Monologues” will not be in Phoenix on Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 1. (The game will be played at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, several miles from downtown Phoenix.)
To get acquainted with the culture, I decided to partake in the city’s theater scene. I found myself at a show by a company called Nearly Naked Theatre. I’m going to reiterate that I was watching Nearly Naked’s production of Paul Rudnick’s “Valhalla” for research purposes only. Those of you with a delicate constitution might want to steer clear (it’s more than “Nearly Naked” if you know what I mean, wink, nudge), but I rather enjoyed the bawdy, over-the-top humor.
Although I was trying to look as nonchalant as possible at the Nearly Naked show, I must have appeared nervous because a gentleman in the audience told me that I might be more comfortable at FilmBar, an art house cinema and bar. The movie house is a wonderful retro throwback. My puritanical, waspy personality was more at ease watching the very arty “Listen Up Philip” while sipping white wine. Let that be a lesson, my friends: If a man at a naked play gives you a recommendation for an activity, listen carefully.
I stayed outside Phoenix in Litchfield Park at a resort called the Wigwam. All of you Jeannie-come-latelys who would like to stay here are out of luck. The place is booked solid. The Wigwam is not as campy or retro as the name would leave you to believe. The 80-year-old hotel began as a retreat for the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. It evolved into lodging in 1929, and has since grown to a 331-room resort with three championship golf courses, nine tennis courts, and a spa. The resort recently underwent a $5 million renovation, but still feels remarkably authentic and retains details such as original windows with panes designed to resemble the pattern of a Goodyear tire tread.
Given the near-perfect weather, I felt compelled to do something outdoorsy, aside from walking around downtown from one restaurant to the next. Phoenix’s Desert Botanical Garden has trails, stunning views, and enough cactuses to give Wile E. Coyote nightmares. Nice as the garden was, I have the pallor of Barnabas Collins (on a good day) and therefore decided that I should limit my outdoor exposure. Looking for shade, I found the highlight of my visit to Phoenix (sorry, Nearly Naked Theatre), the Musical Instrument Museum . It’s a $250 million, 200,000-square-foot celebration of instruments from every corner of the globe, plus a gallery of celebrity instruments. It’s a music nerd’s dream come true.
The more I spoke with people, the longer my list of must-visit attractions and restaurants became. I found myself eating pies at Food Truck Friday, pizza at Pizzeria Bianco, mozzarella and beets at St. Francis , and trying the cocktails at Shady’s and the Royale Lounge. I saw Bob Schneider at the beautiful Crescent Ballroom, and just when I thought Phoenix had no more to offer, I came upon an all-day concert of Arizona bands at the futuristic Civic Space Park.
As I listened to the synth pop band Bogan Via and stuffed myself with fry bread — that’s what the natives call fried dough — I realized that maybe my initial reaction to Phoenix was a bit harsh. Afterall, it has something no other metropolis will have in 2015: The biggest sporting event in the country.Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther