This July saw a seismic shift to the downtown landscape; after years upon years of construction and delays, the rollout of the long-foretold Modern Streetcar finally came to pass, officially opening the latest chapter of downtown Tucson's history.
In decades past, the consensus was that downtown wasn't so much a nighttime destination as it was a place to avoid after sunset—that is, unless one was really into getting accosted by vagrants and junkies looking to get a few bucks for whatever substance (legal or otherwise) they'd take in as dinner that evening.
But before the bistros, before the gastropubs and before the James Beard winners moved into downtown, there was Grill. For 18 years it was a beacon in the center of Congress Street, catering to celebrities, vagrants and anyone in between; it was a safe haven for those who were willing to taste their particular brand of hate, complete with manifesto; and above all, it was a place to get some damn good food.
The light in the darkness is no longer there; it now lays in ruins, going out in a literal blaze of glory in the early hours of Jan.1, 2013. Now all that remains of Grill and the Red Room, its adjoining bar, are the walls and the memories of the people closest to it: the owners, employees and downtown neighbors.
James Graham, original owner and operator, Grill: I moved to Tucson from New York with my brother for school, and one of the first things I said to him was "Where's the diner?" This is a college town, and we came from New York, so we'd never seen a chain restaurant before. We met more and more people and asked around, and we found the Congress Grill. Like everybody at the time, we went in once, left in horror and disgust, and thought, "It'd be great if someone bought it and cleaned it up and did something nice with it." Turned out those were prophetic words.
After I graduated, I was looking for a restaurant space when the Congress Grill came up for sale. I realized if I didn't buy and renovate it, it was going to get gutted and torn down and turned into something horrible. Our friends threw in money, my wife and I bought it, and we got people to help renovate it and in six weeks we were able to trick it out. We opened in 1994.
We wrote a bad check to the supermarket to buy food, sold that food, covered the check and did it again the next night, and that's what we just kept doing for years. It was a huge hit from day one.
We knew that there was a demand. We kept hearing that we couldn't open a business downtown—"you can't do anything there at night, you can't make money on Congress Street"—and we wanted to rub their faces in it, and shut them the fuck up. We did, and that's what matters.
Margo Susco, Hydra owner: They filled this wonderful niche themselves. They opened up not long after us, and you had to be a visionary and have self confidence to open up here in the '90s. There was an intimacy about coming here in that time.
David Mendez: When did Patrick Forsythe, the closing owner, get involved?
Graham: Patrick was a chef at Hotel Congress at the time. I think he outgrew that, and he wanted to own a place so he came to me. He worked for me so we worked out a deal where he could buy it. This was around 1999. I was really involved with starting MOCA at that point, which was a table at Grill at one point, so I wanted to put my energy toward that.
Patrick Forsythe, closing owner: I'd been with Hotel Congress for six years at that point, and had some money at the time to invest. When Grill came up for sale, I talked to James and Julia, and that's how that worked out. I worked there for a year with them, to figure out what I was getting into, and that's just how it worked out.
What was the situation like downtown during Grill's day?
Graham: It was depressing on Congress Street between I-10 and the Hotel Congress. There was usually one thing open at night, that was it. The city wanted nothing to do with downtown, and didn't even know we existed. I remember a council meeting, and then-councilwoman Shirley Scott got up and said "I want to see 24-hour restaurants downtown! It'd be great for economic development!" I went up to her after the meeting and said "I own a 24- hour restaurant downtown. It's called The Grill." She started to babble and backpedal. So full of shit.
Forsythe: There wasn't a lot of support for local businesses at the time. All we knew is that we had to own property downtown to make a difference. James and Julia were lined up to own the building, but Mrs. Kim got to it first. We decided to roll the dice and try the restaurant anyway, and it didn't work out. A lot of that had to do with the fact that she didn't give a damn about what happened to the property so long as they could sell it down the line. At one point in the early 2000s, if the property owner agreed to match funds or agree to not flip the property, the city would help improve the facade of the business. Mrs. Kim didn't want to deal with that.
The relationship with the Kims was horrible. It was one of those things where if you paid rent on time, it was fine. If you asked to have anything fixed or modified, you were screwed. James did his renovations, we did ours, but it hadn't been completely renovated since 1959, so the city was ready to shut it down just for fire code. I talked to Mrs. Kim about it, and said that if the restaurant's going to continue, we're going to need help on improvements and new lease terms. She told me she didn't care if there was a restaurant there or not.
You can only bang your head against the wall for so long before you just give up.
How did you end up working at Grill? How was it working there?
Gabriel Sullivan, booker at the Red Room: I was attached to the whole business just from playing music there. It was just this big inner circle of friends and musicians that hung out at the Red Room, played music and worked there. When Chris Black decided he needed to give up the booking gig he had, the first person he suggested to Patrick was me, and I had become so connected with the music community that it was a really easy transition to take over.
When I started, I was trying to think of who I could get in there that never comes, and I was trying to step it up to prove who I could get in there. I never did get to book Howe Gelb there though.
Luke Anable, bartender at the Red Room: I graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Chicago, moved here and applied for a job with Tucson Weekly. I didn't get that, and was disparaged. I applied for a job at the library, didn't get it and was super disparaged. I walked by Grill and saw a sign that said "help wanted immediately," which was frequently there—like "are you ready to work in five minutes?" I came in and started washing dishes. I did that for a month, then worked the floor for a few months, bartended, then started managing the bar with Will Elliott.
It really was an experiment in chaos. Maybe it's overly romantic in my head, but it was just freaks, goths, punk rockers and homeless downtowners. It was our little place; no one came down there, no one left, and we all lived within half a mile of downtown. If we weren't working there, we'd be there eating. It was a place where Patrick would pay Boar's Head for meat before he would pay the exterminator. The priorities were a bit backwards maybe, but there was a commitment to quality. No one talks about how great the food was there, but it really was, at least ingredients-wise. People were super committed to it.
Graham: The idea that we could be attacked by a crazy homeless person with Tourette's who could bite you and send you to the hospital, knowing the cops wouldn't come and help you, creates a pretty intense bond. The people that worked for us were generally very young, too; for many of them, it was their first restaurant job, and we were teaching them their first skills. Most places didn't give their employees as much protection as we gave them; it was good for them to hear that, if the customer touches them, that we'd beat the shit out of them, that their boss was really protecting them.
Forsythe: Once you've worked with a crew from 10 p.m. to 6 p.m., fed 300 people, had your life threatened, had a conversation with Reverend Horton Heat, then gotten through a few shifts like that with the same crew ... yeah you're going to bond.
As for the food, everything was homemade. The "cheese on tots" rule was just part of the quality line; if you cross that, you might as well be a Chuck E. Cheese, or Maloney's or anything else. But it was also to push our cooks and waiters to get involved in real food. We were trying to teach people how to use every bit of our ingredients.
Patrick Foley, cook: It was funny; a lot of cooks ended up going from Grill to different, high-quality places. You had to come up with specials, using the Culinary Institute of America cookbook, you had to come up with different soups ... everything was made from scratch, and if you worked there you actually learned something about cooking. It wasn't just opening cans.
Bilal Mir, kitchen manager: At the point when I joined, or enrolled, or enlisted at Grill, it was clear it was a cool kids club, but it also took a certain fortitude to work there. If you were some dipshit who took the job just to try and bang one of the cute girls from Brooklyn Pizza, you wouldn't have lasted. You needed to have a good foundation or work ethic. There were a lot of guys who worked in there who were dipshits and just wanted to hang out. But if you stuck to it and were worth something, you were OK.
I remember one day, the kitchen manager at the time was telling me about some scam with this kid who was a waiter, stealing from the place, and for some reason he was telling me. Maybe he thought I'd team up with him and rip the place off bigger? I don't know. But one night I drinking with Matt Davidson and told him what was going on. They fired the guy the next day. Not long after that, they started grooming me to run the kitchen. I was the best cook there, and I guess Pat saw something in me that made him think I could run the kitchen.
But while I was there, there was really a particular core group of guys who worked for me that I try to keep up with when I can. Foley, Ryan Chevira, Jesse Vasquez, but there's one guy who fell off the grid, Graham Weisse, who I always ask about when I'm out there ... those were the dudes who helped hold it together, honestly.