Located at the southern tip of Arizona, Tucson is the state’s creative enclave. Nestled between the Saguaro National Park, the Old Pueblo draws millions of travelers for its larger-than-life saguaros, a variety of cactus whose blossoms form the state’s official wildflower. Just 30 minutes from Tucson’s downtown, this desert oasis presents the icons of the southwest in their natural environment. Stunning vistas aside, Tucson’s designation as UNESCO’s very first City of Gastronomy highlighted its slew of food and drink options—many of which offer more than traditional dine-in scenarios. The blend of Sonoran culture with the Mexican heritage of many inhabitants creates a unique flavor that stands out within the region, and the city’s obsession with heritage and heirloom seeds only fuels this further. Here we have selected some of our favorite small businesses for locals to patronize now, or for when visitors may find themselves in the dynamic city.
When Chaffin’s Diner closed in 2015, the owners of Phoenix’s beloved Welcome Diner saw a listing on Craigslist that would prove to be fortuitous. Opened in 2016 as the Tucson branch of Welcome Diner, this Googie-style eatery was reborn. Featuring a sky blue color scheme, from the floating bar stools to the exterior, Welcome Diner takes the best of ’60s-style diner ambiance and pairs it with modern fare, on par with Tucson’s gastronomic reputation. For vegan diners, the Jackfruit Torta and Three Sisters Burrito are local favorites while the carnivores have four variations of chicken and biscuits to choose from. They also offer plenty of to-go options that can be picked up curbside from 10AM to 8PM.
The Downtown Clifton
A former motel, The Downtown Clifton is located at the edge of Five Points, one of Tuscon’s exciting newer neighborhoods. In walking distance to downtown, yet set far enough back to afford a feeling of serenity, the location of this property is only part of its charm. Guests are encouraged to grab one of the many record players stacked in the lobby and select their favorite vinyls from the hotel’s collection for in-room use. There’s seating in the campground-styled backyard which is completed by wood-burning fires. In the morning, walk just two blocks down the road to the convergence of Five Points and enjoy breakfast at 5 Points Market & Restaurant. Bright, airy, and serving farm to table ingredients, the eatery offers one of the tastiest breakfasts in town. On Sundays, they host a farmer’s market in the park next door, offering up local produce and products.
Don Guerra’s success story is the stuff of local legend. A young entrepreneur opens a bakery out of his garage, selling the most enticing loaves of bread Tucson has seen. Pretty soon, he was driving his van around town, selling loaves at local schools and businesses. When Guerra upgraded to his current location, a one-room bakery on Eastbourne Avenue, the word was out. Everything sells out, no matter the weather. Guerra was a James Beard Semi-Finalist in 2019 and recently earned grant money to continue the expansion of his business. On his mind of late is education (blame it on his years spent as a school teacher) but more specifically, the enrichment of the heritage grain movement, of which he is a passionate participant. Open Tuesday to Saturday, Barrio Bread is pick-up only until sold out.
De Grazia Gallery in the Sun
Even the drive to the home and studio of artist Ted De Grazia is beautiful. Nestled at the base of the Santa Catalina mountains, De Grazia’s adobe-style reprieve was designed and built by the prolific artist to house his works in harmony with nature and the surrounding landscape. Each room in the maze-like adobe features a different theme and inspiration. From his interpretations of the Italian circus and desert crowns to his saguaro-print fabrics in partnership with the Fuller Fabric Company of New York, visitors can feel the influence of the Sonoran culture on De Grazia’s work. Make sure to save time to visit the artist’s former home, a spartan adobe he built himself, as well as The Mission in the Sun, a chapel the artist built and dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Now registered as a national historic landmark, the mission’s roof, which is open to the skies, cuts a dramatic figure as the sun sets.
Another option for plant-based eaters, Tumerico is a woman-run business with a fantastic reputation. (Ask anyone in Tucson for a vegan recommendation and the first name you’ll hear is Tumerico.) Chef Wendy Garcia focuses on cooking Mexican-influenced seasonal food from scratch. The menu here changes with the seasons so each visit may offer something new, including unexpected dishes like a Mexican-style pad thai. They are currently running pick-up hours between 11AM to 6PM and offer delivery too.
The Owl’s Club
Housed in a former funeral home, Owl’s Club takes its theme seriously. A blend of religious icons make up the decor from the church pews to the tapered candles. As it’s just a five minute walk from The Downtown Clifton, it’s easy to start your night here. It may sound somber, but the combined effect of the decor and the haunting music creates an eerie yet ethereal quality that, if nothing else, provides a fantastic conversation starter.
By day, Exo does a bustling trade in its bright, industrial cafe environment—offering to-go coffees and snacks from 7AM to 4PM daily. By night, Exo Bar, or El Crisol, is an entirely different experience, despite the shared space. From the outside, this mezcal bar looks run of the mill, tucked behind the cafe’s entrance, but it’s one of the best local spots in town to have a drink. Located in the Historic Warehouse Arts District, the interiors are kept dark and the bar is illuminated with the light of dozens of bottles of mezcal, framed by a few saguaro references for decor. The unpretentious nature of this mezcaleria combined with the encyclopedic knowledge of its staff, makes El Crisol an easy nightly routine for visitors and locals alike.
Hero image by Leora Novick