Dining Detours

How's all the construction affecting downtown restaurants? The answer depends on who you ask

At 7 o'clock on a recent Saturday evening, Café Poca Cosa--tucked under a parking garage with a hard-to-find entrance facing a side street--was packed with chattery patrons devouring chef Suzana Dávila's exotic haute-Mexican cuisine.

Around the corner, Touch of Class BBQ--offering more down-to-earth fare on another side street, but with a big storefront window displaying a cozy interior--looked like Edward Hopper's bleak café painting "Nighthawks," but without the three sullen patrons. You'd hardly guess it was open.

Many downtown restaurateurs who have operated for several years and have developed a loyal clientele say their business has hardly been affected by this past year's road construction and detours. Those with only a few months of operation behind them, however, say the torn-up streets are killing them.

"It's horrible," says Touch of Class owner Sharon Dillon, who opened the restaurant a year and a half ago. "A lot of people are staying in and eating rather than coming downtown and dealing with the construction."

Things got so bad for Jeff Wer, owner of Casablanca in the former Mountain Oyster Club, that his landlord recently locked him out of the building for failing to pay $16,000 in back taxes as required under the lease agreement. Wer, who owns two other eateries elsewhere in town, opened Casablanca last March, declaring it to be the crown jewel in his restaurant group, but the jewel turned out to be a shattered chunk of glass. Wer told a reporter that road construction downtown and on Interstate 10 had driven away 90 percent of his business.

Elsewhere downtown, the situation is iffy, but less dire. Carmen Bracamonte, daughter of the owner of Alejandro's, a little 3-year-old Mexican restaurant on Scott Avenue, said recently, "The last couple of weeks have been slow. We've always had some days that are good and some that aren't, but before, we used to know which days would be slow. Now we never know." Bracamonte hesitated to blame the irregular downturn on construction.

Jacob Schmidt, a host at Café Poca Cosa, says that business there is still doing well: "We do get a lot of frustrated customers who can't get off the freeway or can't find us because of the detours, but we haven't noticed a major change."

The Cup Café in Hotel Congress is perfectly situated for disaster. Steve Dunn, who manages the restaurant, says, "Toole's closed; Congress is closed; and they're going to have a gutter right down Fifth, so we're really surrounded. But we're doing good. It's not as hard as we expected. We have a great base clientele that's very faithful and that's supported us through this. We've earned their respect, and they keep coming back."

Further west on Congress, the popular diner called Grill is less surrounded by trenches and heavy equipment, but owner Patrick Forsythe sees the dust closing in on his cash register. "We're averaging 10 to 15 percent down from last year on a monthly basis," he says, noting that he's heard that businesses in the two blocks between Grill and Hotel Congress and those on Fourth Avenue have even bigger trouble. "The first hurdle was the smoking ban that went into effect in May," he says, "but May was spot-on, and June was actually up with the ban. But as soon as they shut down the underpass, it started tanking. It's too much of a coincidence."

It's easier on establishments that rely on local foot traffic. Consider the sandwich bistro Café à la C'art, snuggled into the Tucson Museum of Art complex. Says owner Judy Michelet, "We're pretty much holding our own. An awful lot of my clientele is able to walk over from the water company, the government buildings and attorneys' offices. I'm not depending on I-10 or people coming from the eastside for lunch, so that makes a difference."

Similarly, Sam Robles, owner-manager of Scooter's Café, a little sandwich and coffee shop in La Placita Village, isn't feeling much pain. "Business has pretty much been the same," he says. "For me, the ride in is a pain in the butt, coming down Broadway, and so is parking, but we do pretty good, because we have a lot of regular customers from the federal courthouse and the city building. I can see how people complain because of the construction, but I haven't noticed any big problems."

The annual Gem and Mineral Show, now underway, could help boost business at downtown restaurants with its huge influx of dealers and buyers. But it will also slow down and congest traffic that's already snarled, and that could cause a lot of locals to shun downtown for the duration.

Interestingly, slowing and diverting vehicular traffic is a long-term goal of downtown-redevelopment planners. The theory is that too many people have been zipping through downtown without stopping, using Broadway Boulevard and Congress Street as easy routes to and from the freeway. Reducing the number of lanes (by converting one-way streets to two, or by expanding the sidewalks), lowering the speed limit and running a lumbering trolley down the middle of the road would make Congress and Broadway unattractive as throughways and more agreeable to pedestrians. Speeding commuters would be diverted to the freeway via the long-planned final mile of the Barraza-Aviation Parkway, although at the present rate of progress, that may not be completed before it will be made obsolete by the invention of flying cars and personal jetpacks.

So it seems that traffic circulation downtown won't be easy even when most of the current construction is finished a couple of years from now. Meanwhile, how can the 40-some downtown restaurateurs stay in business?

Dillon, who owns the struggling Touch of Class, is trying to find some city-funded rent assistance. But city subsidies didn't save Central Bistro, which opened in the Historic Train Depot across from Hotel Congress and closed last August after a year and a half of operation; Central Bistro failed to develop a following even before street construction complicated things.

Forsythe at Grill has mixed feelings about what the city has done to help so far, and what more it could do. "We got the proper signage up (touting businesses and alerting drivers to detours and parking areas), which is helpful," he says. He's also thankful that the city's downtown parking shuttle system, TICET, is operating, but he says the maps and schedules are hard to read, and you can't tell which shuttle is on which route unless you see it coming straight on.

"The city should be doing something more, but I don't know what without sounding like a crybaby," he says. "We're either gonna make it, or we're not, and bitching about it isn't going to help."

Michelet, of Café à la C'art, has a more cheerful outlook. She believes everyone's business will turn around--three years from now, when construction is finished, and some major new hotels are up. Meanwhile, she thinks her fellow restaurateurs should capitalize on festivities, concerts and special events downtown (including a food show at Hotel Congress on April 10, showcasing more than a dozen downtown chefs), and get out the word that, contrary to popular belief, downtown is actually a safe, low-crime area.

Another optimist is Shannon Reilly, former owner of the Sausage Deli, who took over the popular, 4-year-old Enoteca Pizzeria and Wine Bar at the beginning of this year. Her business is booming. "I was not a fan of the construction, but this has changed my mind," she says. "The atmosphere, the people who work for me and my food all make people want to come back, and that's what it takes for any restaurant."

Says Schmidt at Poca Cosa, "Downtown, we have to work a little harder to make our food and service better than in other parts of town. But we have an established customer base; people know our food and service; and they're willing to battle the construction and still eat here."

Robles, at Scooter's, is planning to extend his hours. Wer has vowed to overcome his financial troubles and reopen Casablanca. The owners of Hotel Congress will be taking over the space at the Train Depot (rent-free until March 2011), and around late spring will open a "grab and go" eatery and market there called Maynard's.

"It's a great time to do something like this; there's a lot of excitement," insists Dunn. "I don't believe this is a more challenging part of town than anyplace else. With the construction, we just take a little extra time to guide people in when they call. Once you know a couple of turns here and there, it's very easy to get where you're going and find parking."

Dillon, however, isn't so sure that downtown is the best place for Touch of Class. "I know I could do better in another part of town, and I have considered moving," she says. "But I've been working down here 30 years, and I like the population and the clientele, and it's kind of central. I'm trying hard to stay down here, because I love it."